When most of my students hear how many languages my friend Maria speaks, they are amazed. Born of Greek parents and raised in Germany, she speaks both Greek and German fluently, as well as Spanish and English. Maria's language abilities are matched by many of our international students, particularly those who come from Europe, where many schools introduce English as a required second language in elementary school and require a third, and even encourage an optional fourth language, later on in students' lives.
For too many Americans, the idea of speaking a second language fluently remains either an enviable but unreachable goal or a seemingly unnecessary luxury. Despite the numerous benefits that studying language offers to individuals, communities, and our country, language educators too often still have to fight for their very existence in times of budget cuts. While many state-education departments and government leaders have long encouraged foreign-language study, financial support has not matched the level of stated interest.
The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFE), in declaring 2005 "The Year of Languages," hopes to change perceptions of the importance of second-language acquisition. The vision statement for the initiative contends that "all Americans should be proficient in at least one language and culture in addition to English. For this reason, foreign language education must be part of the core curriculum and be treated as central to the education of all children" (www.actfl.org).
Unfortunately, this vision is not a reality in numerous school districts across the country. Learning a second language is only an elective in many high schools and too frequently is offered solely as an enrichment exercise in elementary schools. For example, in parts of the United States, particularly in poorer or smaller communities, no sustained language programming for young children exists. While elementary school children may learn colors or numbers in a second language, too few communities offer continuous education in a language from a young age through high school. Those who excel in language courses are still sometimes restricted at the high school level as well; because of budget constraints, some teachers are forced to offer third and fourth years of a language in the same classroom at the same time, thus diminishing the fourth-year students' chances for advancement.
Additionally, when education budgets are cut, high school language educators scramble to justify their positions and are often pitted against each other, asked to argue whether Spanish is more important than German, or Japanese more important than French. Some languages, although they are of great importance, are taught much less often. Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and other non-European languages are unavailable in many areas of the United States, thus disadvantaging students in our changing world.
Simply put, too many people inside and outside of education view second-language acquisition as a luxury, an enrichment activity, or an elective. Despite the current need for culturally and linguistically diverse members to participate in the world economy and in foreign policy, as a whole too many of our students are in awe of students from other countries who know other languages.
To alter this situation, we need to capitalize on our very identity as a nation. The solution to surviving in the twenty-first century and beyond is already here in the treasure that is our rich cultural diversity. In this Year of Languages, we should embrace our heritage and become filled with a passion for learning the languages of our ancestors and our current neighbors. Language study in our schools ought to become, as ACTFL argues, a part of our core curriculum. …