Teaching Languages Serious Business

Article excerpt

An old joke told in Europe goes like this:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks many languages?

A: Multilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks just one language?

A: American.

Whether the facts support the generalization that Americans are less fluent than the rest of the developed world in more than their mother tongue is a matter of some dispute. But it doesn't take an oracle to see that if we don't improve our fluency in the languages and cultures of a post-emergent global marketplace, our ability to compete economically -- not to mention cooperate productively -- with people of other countries will slide precipitously.

Schools, naturally, must be the front line advancing our role in the world economy, and it is reassuring to see, as Daily Herald staff writer Tara Garcia Mathewson for Sunday's editions, many suburban school districts promoting a new depth of language training that goes beyond traditional foreign language study.

So-called "dual language" programs immerse students in the program language -- usually Spanish, but one suburban school offers Japanese, and programs are emerging in districts around the country in languages as traditional as French and as increasingly influential as Chinese.

The goal, of course, is not to replace English, nor even to diminish its position as the dominant language of American culture. …