This year my daughters and I have been studying a little bit of Spanish. I had originally conceived of the idea that they might begin learning it a year ago, when we were visiting my cousin and her family in California. They are a fully bilingual family. Her husband is from Nicaragua and they speak both English and Spanish quite regularly around their house, and in fact that is a good thing in Southern California-- because there are so many people there who speak both languages, if two people apply for a job and one of them is bilingual and the other speaks only one language, guess who gets hired?
I speak some Spanish, although it is mostly of the 'street Spanish' variety that I picked up from living in various places in New Mexico for a total of thirty-two years.
So we signed up for a beginning Spanish class at the local community college, but we encountered some resistance from an administrator. Children under age fourteen are in general not permitted to take academic classes (although I planned on attending every day with them, and we had the permission of the instructor.) Luckily we found a way that we could get instruction from an individual who voluntarily did it on his own time.
However, this got me to thinking about how we are focused on the wrong question in America. We are focused on the question of 'should every one learn English' and the proponents of this idea are called, 'English only' advocates. I believe that instead of English only, a better plan would be 'English AND.' A recent poll showed that only fourteen percent of Americans believe that learning a second language is of value, and because of this, we wait until high school to even teach it. This may be a fatal flaw in our national educational philosophy.
In most countries, children in elementary school are taught another language. And not just a few short words or phrases, but to actually be able to communicate in it. Of course in many places in Europe, this is a necessity, as you could drive a hundred miles in virtually any direction and be surrounded by people who spoke another language. But it is also true that in many Asian nations, students are taught English or another language (but most commonly English) at an early age, and as such are prepared by High School to converse easily in at least one, and maybe more other languages.
In America, in contrast, we believe that until children can understand complex English sentence structure (i.e. High School) there is no purpose to their learning another language. And even at that, I was even having a conversation with another parent who told me that his daughter, a straight A student in High School, had passed a year of Spanish here, but still struggled in Spanish that she took at the University she is attending, and certainly wasn't ready to actually sit down and carry out a conversation with someone in Spanish. Further, by High School, students minds are less adaptable to being able to actually think in another language, which means that a second language, no matter how well it is learned, will always be a 'second language' (whereas, in my cousin's household, her daughter who will graduate next year with high honors spoke both languages fluently even by the age of five, and has no problem moving back and forth as the situation requires.) On top of this, the foreign language requirement in High School, such as it is, requires one more tough academic class for native English speakers, meaning that they will have less time, energy and ability to devote to their actual English class (along with their math class, their science class, etc.) Then we wonder why their math/science achievement scores fall below those of students in other countries, especially in Europe and Asia (big clue-- students in those countries don't have to study another language in High School, having already mastered it before they begin).
Why should we care? Most of the eighty-six percent of Americans who don't consider learning another language an important skill would probably argue that they do just fine in their chosen line of work only speaking English. And they would be right. But the world their children will be going into is different from the one they grew up in. Today, globalization of trade through organizations like the World Trade Organization, as well as the growth of the internet, means that people will be communicating much more with people from other countries than they have in the past, especially in vital areas like information technology, commerce and criminal enforcement. And when those contacts are made, the people who will facilitate the communication will be people who speak more than one language-- in other words, foreigners. As just one example, trade between the United States and China will be a trillion dollar per year industry by the middle of this century. And who will facilitate that trade? People who speak both Mandarin and English. In other words, Chinese (quick, how many Americans do you know who are fluent in Mandarin?) In Chinese universities students are taught all of their subjects in English. There will be no shortage, in other words, of talented and well educated Chinese who speak fluent English.
In contrast to the unskilled immigrants coming over our southern border, we now see skilled workers, especially in high tech industries, returning home after earning their advanced degrees at U.S. universities, or in many cases just staying there in the first place. China, as an example, is opening a new university the size of Arizona State University every two weeks on the average. India is also full of high tech workers who earned their degrees in America and have returned home. Of course, India has the advantage that Gandhi, in his admirable wisdom, resisted pressure from those who wanted to make the official language of India (used in newspapers, official documents and taught in all schools) Hindi, Bengali or any of the dozens of local languages. Instead, he chose English-- the language of the hated colonial masters, but one which was equally hated everywhere, thereby not conveying 'chosen' status on any particular group, and a language which guaranteed that an Indian from any part of India could communicate with an Indian from any other part of the nation-- and now serves India very well in the world of international business.
What should we do? First, we should begin teaching second languages at a much younger age. It might require a significant investment in our elementary schools (already starved for cash) and another reason we need to get away from the 'how much can we cut government' philosophy that we have been living under and towards a 'how can we make schools and other public institutions most effective?' Second, and this is a very good compromise in my opinion to the whole 'English learning' issue-- we should view only knowing one language (whatever language that is) as unacceptable, and implement 'English and.' This would require that people who speak another language to learn English (as proponents of 'English only' want) but would also require that students who speak English would learn another language as well and would learn it in elementary school (I personally believe that given the demographics of the U.S. as well as our geographical position in the world that Spanish would be the most logical choice for most students, but local school boards would have the option to offer whatever second language(s) fit their students, regional demographics, economy and instructional staff). In such a set up, instruction would not only be given to help students learn the second language, but also then at least some (particularly that focusing on history and culture of the places where the second language was spoken) would be given in that language, as they do in European countries. This would also solve another conflict that we have locally. I live near the Navajo reservation, and the conflict between parents who want to maintain their traditional culture (including its language) and the pressures of the outside world (especially the 'English only' requirement that the outside world is trying to thrust into schools) is intense. An 'English And' instead of an 'English only' requirement nationally would solve this problem as the reservation schools could then be free to offer instruction in both languages.
If we don't do this however, that 'giant sucking sound' that Ross Perot talked about a few years ago won't necessarily be jobs (though we will lose a lot of jobs as well in areas like commerce and service industries). It will be economic strength, technological ability and commercial leadership as the business and creativity of the world is taken over by people from other countries who can communicate with each other while we become a backwards, mono-lingual country.