Column: We must stop worrying about the ‘foreign’ in foreign languages

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Levantate! Sientate! Toca la mesa! Da la vuelta!

Lately, we’ve been hearing these words a lot at home. They’re Spanish and they mean: Stand up! Sit down! Touch the table! Turn around!

Our youngest child is learning these words at school, along with other phrases like, &uot;Pon el papel amarillo en la cabeza&uot; &045; put the yellow paper on the head. We’re having fun with her new vocabulary, and she gets to play the teacher as she explains what the words mean and how to pronounce them.

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I admit that these words are not the most &uot;practical&uot; phrases in any language (no customs official or shopkeeper will be impressed that you can say &uot;toca la mesa,&uot; and the only &uot;papel&uot; they’ll be interested in is your passport or your money). But these simple words and phrases are a start. At least she and her older brother are learning a foreign language while they’re young enough for it to have a real impact on them. I just wish that kind of learning wasn’t so rare in our public schools.

It’s not that I blame schools for not pursuing language study. Again and again I’ve seen schools promote foreign languages and even offer multiple options for foreign languages. The school district I attended, for example, offered French and Spanish in junior high, and in high school the choices expanded to include several other languages. Although Albert Lea only offers Spanish classes now, it also used to start foreign language classes at the junior high level. In past years, many ALHS students learned French, German, Russian or Latin. Even now, some elementary teachers in Albert Lea schools bring foreign language study into their social studies lessons. Many of the most impressive &045; and expensive &045; private schools in our country stress foreign language study in their curriculum.

No, the apathy toward foreign languages isn’t caused by public schools; it stems from attitudes towards anything perceived as &uot;foreign&uot; in our society. This nation of immigrants from everywhere has become a nation of chauvinists. America first! English only! The rest of the world matters to most of us only as a place for vacations or the source of fruit and vegetables in the winter.

We adults don’t see the value of fluency in anything other than American English and we pass that attitude on to our kids. If we did think fluency in German, Spanish or even Japanese was important, schools would probably include them as requirements for graduation, not as electives that can be cut whenever the budget is tight.

Other societies are not quite as apathetic when it comes to languages. Germany, where I lived for a year, requires the learning of two foreign languages before a student leaves their version of high school. Students there, and in many other places around the world, start learning a foreign language (often English, but not always) around the age of 10 &045; sometimes even earlier.

One reason for that is it is so much easier learning any kind of language when we are young; the early development of the human brain is designed to make language learning easy. I lived in Japan from when I was three until I was six, and even without language lessons I picked up enough Japanese to talk to our neighbors and the shopkeepers in the village we lived in. A child’s mind is designed to learn how to communicate, and when given the opportunity, they do it.

So it’s up to the parents and grandparents in our society to give our kids that opportunity to learn. We need to make foreign language study a priority, a basic part of public education &045; the same as math, English, science and history &045; not an elective or something that only rich kids study in private schools. We need to start teaching foreign languages when children are younger. We need to stop being the only nation in the world where a person can only be fluent in one language and still be seen as well educated.

English may be an international language; it is an important language. But it isn’t the only one. And there are many more people in the world who don’t understand English than there are who do.

In other words, we Americans need to &uot;parle Franais&uot; or &uot;Deutsch sprechen&uot; if we really want to be well-educated citizens of planet Earth.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.