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Why learn a second language?

In a world in which the benefits of learning a second language have never been greater, the way languages are taught is changing to meet the growing need.

By GreatSchools Staff

Ask an American adult about whether she speaks a language other than English, and you're likely to get an answer something like this: "I took French in school, but I can't speak it."

That's no longer an acceptable response. Not to government leaders worried about the lack of Chinese or Arabic speakers in a post-9/11 world. Not to business leaders concerned about America's ability to compete in the global marketplace. And not to the parents and students who understand the competitive advantage that knowledge of another language and culture provides.

This pressure to teach students to communicate in a second language has drastically changed methods of instruction in the best language programs.

"What a lot of Americans remember is language as an academic pursuit," says Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "They learned a lot about a language, how to conjugate every irregular verb. Today, the emphasis is on developing students' communications skills - what they can do with a language. That's a radical departure."

But lots of students still aren't getting this kind of language instruction. In most states, language class is an elective not required for graduation. Language teachers are in short supply nationwide. Language programs are in continual peril of being cut in financially strapped districts concerned about students' test scores in reading, math or science - the subjects required to be tested under the No Child Left Behind law.

"It's still seen as an extra," says veteran teacher Michele Stemler, who teaches Spanish in Portland, Ore.

Parents have a key role to play in advocating for expanded language programs, pressing for better instruction and supporting their children's efforts to learn a language, language educators say.

How language programs have changed

Historically, language classes were taken only by college-bound students, and many took the minimum of two years that colleges required. They learned to conjugate verbs in Spanish, French or German, and most graduated from high school with just enough knowledge to pass written tests but not enough to carry on a conversation.

That is starting to change, as the need for fluency in more languages has increased, as technology has made more tools available to teach them and as researchers gain new insights into how children learn.

"We're talking now about what is it we really want our students to do," says Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools. "It's no longer a check-off to college admission. It's a tool for communication."

"We have to think completely differently," she says. "It's proficiency, rather than just 'seat time.'"

Comments from readers

"if you talk like that you shouldent take one unitll you learn to talk youre self "
"yo man i aint even be needin no second language homie so i dont even got to be no'in what yall talkin bout peace im out hasta luego "
"Our organization, EN FAMILLE, is looking for families in the States whose children want to do an exchange SPAIN/USA. Children from 9 to 13 and teenagers from 14 to 16. We have many Spanish children who wish to exchange with American children. Visit: "
"My daughter is a student at Amistad Dual Language School (PS/IS 311M, English-Spanish) in New York. Her literacy in both languages is way ahead of what it would be had she attended an English only school. Her understanding of how languages work is remarkable."
"Thank you! What an apropos article!"
"This article is very informative and i helped me with my essay. I totally agree with the ideas of teaching a second language in schools. "
"I believe that learning a second language, possibly even more than only two languages, should be absolutely necessary. We sit here, cozy and happy in the US and all we have to worry about is our petty English language. Students in Europe are required to learn English as well as their own native tongue. Now tell me, what makes Americans so special that we can ignorantly walk about this earth without worrying about any other culture than our own? If it comes down to where I say something in Spanish to someone who doesn't know the language and their response is 'We're in America, speak English,' I believe something needs to be done. "
"Learning a second language is the best any should do, i lecture EFIK language nigerian schools... "
"dont like it"
"languages are completely necesary. people need to learn how to do something in another language their going to learn to do so. i love the language and so i think that will be ppart of my life. my HS doesn't require the language but i will take it. what if theres a life or death situation and no one around you can speak english? "
" I have taught French as a high school teacher off and on since 1964 and have seen the many changes in the methods used to teach this language. I have also worked in a French immersion school Pre-K through 5th in Florida and as a result of that marvelous experience, my own French became more fluent and took me back to the days I studied in French-speaking Switzerland. The Pre-K students at that school were marvelous! However, starting with middle school and especially high school, it is without doubt the MOST difficult age group to overcome their inhibitions. I also find the French culture and people to be far less vocal than say, Spanish speaking persons. There are certain manners, customs and cultural attitudes in this culture that are hard to present to older American children. An extremely difficult task to accomplish, but I keep trying..."
"I'm in my senond year of Spanish in my high school career and Spanish is helping me in all of my other classes. Ever since I started taking Spanish my other class grades have been amazingly better!"
"I am a student of English in Venezuela, this information is excellent, now I am taking a signature English for children that is very important in the university, so I would like to know more about it in order to teach this language."
"I'm glad too see this article because i would love to see me learning an new lanuage. For the past few years I tried to learn spanish and now I regret not knowing it. you can get many jobs oppurtinutes as well."
"I am very glad to see this article. I havent lived in the States in mnay years, but I do remember that at a certain point, perhaps 20 years ago, the Modern Lang. Association published news that 2 years of a second language was no longer necessary to graduate from a college or university in Arts. Is this still the case? At any rate, thanks for a wonderful article and keep on publishing. Peg Deaton, M. A., M. Ed. Italian, and Second Language Teaching p.s. I agree with the woman who stated that Latin is beneficial-my two years of high school Latin have stood me in good stead."
"We are moving into a world were no employer will hire you if you dont speak, read, and write in a second language. When will us parents come together and force our childrens school district to get with it and make a second language corse needed for granduation or completion from pre-school and up? When all the jobs are taken by Illegals"
"Giving a child the opportunity to learn more than the general required subjects is a must! In Europe children begin learning other languages in elementary school! Why do we begin so late here? I have heard of this new program called LangoKids and I think it's a great way to give children from a young age, the opportunity to learn another language!"
"I totally agree with this and tried to start my children on a second language at a young age, but didn't get too far because of time limits. My daughter's middle school may be requiring a second language next year. Also, Concordia College in Moorhead MN offers summer language immersion camps in 14 different languages. They are fantastic. "
"Here's a great idea for parents, like me for the summer: On cable, get the spanish cartoon network! I got the idea from a Spaniard friend of mine who learned 5 languages growing up who said he learned a lot from watching cartoons in the various languages! I'm kind of restrictive on the TV, so when I tell my 7 & 10 year old they can have unlimited spanish cartoons, they both really enjoy it! We've had spanish cartoon network and spanish Discovery Kids for a year now-it only costs me $5 more a month to add it. My oldest son likes it best; he knows many phrases and is developing an ear for the language. They have no formal education in Spanish, but they are learning a lot."
"That is a great article! Learning another language is learning another way to think, another perspective. It makes one more creative. Also, the patterns that one is learning helps students in areas such as math and music. This helps persons think in higer levels."
"I am currently taking a graduate bilingual course. Living in South Texas where the majority population is Mexican/American or Mexican citizens, a two way program seems mandated in most all school districts. The bottom line is the Spanish speaking students are not learning the English language. Most students in this area can barely speak, read or write in English, or amazingly carry a conversation in English without code switching from English to Spanish. TO make matters worse, most teachers fall in the small category. "
"I agree that learning a language at a young age is ideal. My children are both in a dual (spanish/english) program in Manhattan (1st and 4th grade). I put them in this program because I learned french starting in 2nd grade when my family moved to Montreal. In order to help my kids with their homework I started taking Spanish Lessons with other class parents. The rate that I was able to learn (along with the other dual language mothers) was astonishing compared to those who were monolingual. My husband likes to joke that I learned Italian listening to tapes on the plane ride to our Honeymoon in Tuscany. The fact is that learning a second language is the best thing that I learned in Elementary school. It was this reason that I chose to put my children in a dual immersion program over a gifted and talented program. Being a year ahead in math or reading seems less important than having a second language. In response to the comment below, if you do not 'force' a language on a young child, it will be too late for them later in life. If they start out early with Spanish (a great choice in this country where we have many Spanish speakers in the school system) Or French in Canada, the child can choose other languages as he or she matures. They will be able to master those languages with ease. Every year I see spanish speaking children with no English enter my childrens' classes. It consistently takes them 6 months to be fluent in English. The children who arrive with more than one language become fluent in english within 2-4 months. When will this country learn to embrace the multicultural diversity that enriches us all? The possibility of learning a second language is a gift. The diversity in this country is an untapped resource."
"I agree with most of your article but I have problem with the languages that are predominately taught in school which is Spanish or French. I agree with the 1st comment made that is should be a students choice of language they WANT to learn. It would certainly provide more incentive for that student to master the langauge if it is one they want to learn rather than one that is typically taught."
"My son is going to be in 9th grade, great student. He decided to take german. I have people saying why doesn't he take spanish? He will need that and so on. I have no problem with spanish, he took it in 4th grade. He get A's and is a great writer. Is it a good choice? I feel he should have a choice and I agree that English is the universal language in America not spanish, greek, german or so on. I just would like some suggestions. Thank you..."
"It is true some teachers teach languages well, but there is a problem. Students always try to find an easy way out, that is why they cheat, or get the class genius to do their work, etc. In this case, doing these group work, they won't be talking in the aimmed language rather their group native language. Other then asking 'What is your favorite food?' in the foriegn language, they say 'hey, fill this out for me.' or 'hey, what yours?(pointing at the question)'. We know a second language is useful, but it is like everything else we teach at school, the students forget it all, they cram for the tests, procratinate their projects, and waste their time in class. Students don't learn anything without a reason, saying it will benefit you in the future means nothing to them, saying it will get you a better mark might work, but saying something that would acually catch their attention to motivate them is the only way the might acually learn. My friend took spanish class, from grade ! 7-12 and also a year after graduation, now all he remembers about spanish is Hola (hi), Si(yes), no(no), and que(what?), these things dont stick in our head, saying 'I took the class but can't speak it' is very common, and for someone rather not to say that is rare for people who dont need it. Not trying to offend anyone, but to tell you the truth, this article is a sugercoated version of what is really happening. I really sugest you to talk to students and see their opinion, rather then assuming them yourselves, and then you will see the real problems that lie in school, for there are a lot more complex and meaningful topics to discuess then this one."
"I am the Pa Coordinator for and am accepting applications for volunteer host families for the incoming foreign high school students. Merci d'avance. Claire Thomas"
"I think it is great for kids to learn a second langage, but let the language learned be their choice. I don't think Spanish should be mandatory in schools and forced upon them. English is the universal language spoken in America, make it mandatory for spanish speaking students to learn English maybe they will go further in life!"
"I totally agree with the above. As a Spanish teacher, I realize the importance of speaking the language, not necessarily writing it only. In my classroom , we always try to do both and interact with the five Cs."
"I learned about the benefits of children learning a second language before the age of 12 while in college - 10 years ago. When is Enumclaw School District (or any other educational district) going to catch up with this fact and start teaching these second languages in Elementary schools, instead of Middle schools? I've personally witnessed a little girl from an asian country go from speaking only her native language at 3 years old to speaking English fluently at the age of 5, while in pre-school. She speaks English much better than her parents ever will. When will the school districts start to act on the facts of learning a second language?"
"As a former high school Spanish teacher, I commend you for your article on second language learning. The new standards for foreign language teaching in Ohio are accurately summarized in your sidebar, and the rationale for expanding language learning is summarized very well."