Foreign Languages: An Essential Core Experience



Foreign language study is in the national education Goals 2000, which states: "By the year 2000 all American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign language, civics and government, arts, history, and geography..." . On September 15, 1999, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley delivered his Annual Back-to-School Address, entitled, "Changing the American High School to Fit Modern Times." Included in his remarks, Riley states, "Let me suggest one other way to raise standards. I believe that in this new economy every high school student should be close to fluent in a foreign language when he or she graduates. We should begin teaching foreign languages in our elementary schools, and then in middle schools and high schools. English is a beautiful language and every American student must be a master of it. English is surely a world language. But learning a foreign language exposes young people to new cultures and new horizons and helps them understand English better."

This is not new thinking, since the 1979 "President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies" also recommended Foreign language requirements for all colleges and universities. The College Board (1983) recommended expanding basic skills to include foreign language education for all students. In 1996, the American Association of School Administrators identified knowledge of foreign languages as one of the most important skills that K-12 students will need to develop to prosper in the 21st century. A February 1997 article in Time magazine suggested that foreign languages should be taught to children as early as possible. The American Council on Education, in a 1989 policy statement, calls on higher education leaders "to make foreign language competence an integral part of a college education. Every baccalaureate holder should be competent in a second language; we can settle for no less as we move into the next century."

Why this insistence that foreign language study be a core element in American education? Americans used to have some patently ignorant and pseudo-scientific (snake-oil) views concerning foreign and second languages. There was talk of a second language taking up the memory capacity needed for the real functions of the brain, such as general intelligence. Just as ignorant was the notion that a second language was only for those were mentally gifted. My fellow Americans, let us put away all divining rods, ouija boards, and indifference towards our neighbors. HERE ARE THE FACTS for founding a true twenty-first century consensus about core elements for a "general" education. In its report, "College Bound Seniors: The 1992 Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers", the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students who averaged 4 or more years of foreign language study scored higher on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) than those who had studied 4 or more years in any other subject area. In addition, the average mathematics score for individuals who had taken 4 or more years of foreign language study was identical to the average score of those who had studied 4 years of mathematics. These findings are consistent with College Board profiles for previous years.

Cognitive Benefits of foreign language study? Children in foreign language programs have tended to demonstrate greater cognitive development, creativity, and divergent thinking than monolingual children. Several studies show that people who are competent in more than one language outscore those who are speakers of only one language on tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence. (Bruck, Lambert, and Tucker, 1974; Hakuta, 1986; Weatherford, 1986). When children are adequately exposed to two languages at an early age, they are more flexible and creative (Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991, and they reach higher levels of cognitive development at an earlier age than their monolingual peers (Hamayan, 1986). Here are research summaries about "The Effect of Second Language Learning on Test Scores, Intelligence and Achievement"

Academic Benefits of foreign language learning? Studies also show that learning another language enhances the academic skills of students by increasing their abilities in reading, writing, and mathematics. Studies of bilingual children made by child development scholars and linguists consistently show that these children grasp linguistic concepts such as words having several meanings faster and earlier than their monolingual counterparts. Everyone knows that reading skills are transferable from one language to another, but there are other benefits. A 1994 report on the impact of magnet schools in the Kansas City Public Schools showed that students in the foreign language magnet schools had boosted achievement significantly (Eaton, 1994). It claimed that students in the language magnet's first kindergarten, starting in the program in 1988, had surpassed national averages in all subjects by the time they reached fifth grade. Oddly enough, the foreign language students performed especially well in mathematics. Nancy Rhodes, secretary of the Network for Early Language Learning, an organization that advocates foreign language study, points to research among third and fourth graders in Louisiana. Those who studied French scored higher in English testing than students in the control group who did not [See also Eileen Rafferty, Second Language Study and Basic Skills in Louisiana. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana Department of Education, 1986)] . There is abundant recent proof of what the truth I have said. An editorial in the Vancouver Sun of October 21, 2004 states: "Province-wide skills tests in British Columbia consistently show that French immersion students outperform their counterparts in the English stream in math, reading and writing." Also in 2004, a foreign-language consultant for Louisiana Public Schools states this in an executive summery of an assessment report, studying performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills: "Several important findings of this study emerged. First, and most strikingly, foreign language students significantly outperformed their non-foreign language peers on every test (English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies) of the fourth-grade LEAP 21." Research on the cognitive benefits of foreign-language study are available in online bibliographies and summaries: Brain science has dicovered that functional plasticity of the human brain is driven by language, and it is beginning to find out that knowing a foreign language can actually change the brain's anatomy by adding gray matter. Dr. Andrea Mechelli is a well-known researcher at the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Aided by experts from the Fondazione Santa Lucia in Rome, she recently completed research showing that brain density is effected by being bilingual or highly proficient in a second language. WebMD tells this story in a recent article:

One may well ask if the city of Glastonbury, Connecticut, where foreign-language study has begun in elementary school since 1957, does not provide massive annectdotal evidence of Mechelli's science discovered in a controlled environment. The proof undoubtedly lies in details of the success of its children: Brain research in Canada has recently revealed that bilinguals and individuals highly proficient in a second language showed a markedly slower decline in mental powers with age:

Research studies in Canada, India and Hong Kong, whose results were released in June 2004, showed that bilingual speakers are better able to deal with distractions than are monolingual speakers:

Of course, nobody can receive any of the benefits of foreign language study if they give credence to the myth that it is so difficult it should be reserved for gifted children among the privileged. There is no evidence to support this untenable argument. Many millions of people from all walks of life and at all ranges of intelligence become bilingual or develop a practical knowledge of another language. We are often ourselves the source of intimidation and anxiety associated with the foreign language class. The following research article demonstrates that studying a foreign language is less difficult then you might think:

In spite of the proven neurological and cognitive benefits, Americans are relatively unresponsive to their own need to put foreign languages at the core of their learning experience. They do this at the peril of their own security, since it is our lapse in linguistic and cultural skills which will likely provide the opportunity for the next terrorist strike:

Globe-Gate Research

UT Martin TFLTA page