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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.'"

Who should take language classes?

Students with below-average test scores have often been excluded from language study. But research about the way language is learned contradicts that view.

Michael Bacon coordinates language immersion programs for public schools in Portland, Ore. Portland has a nationally recognized program in Japanese, as well as programs in Spanish and Chinese, with one beginning in the fall in Russian.

"Learning a second language should be for all children," he says. "There is an assumption that it's only the CEO or businessman who flies around the world needs it."

"There is a well-documented cognitive benefit for learning a second language," he says. "It's not just about language. It's about making a person a better thinker."

Language skills are useful to people who never leave home. Police officers, teachers, nurses, business owners and many others will find language skills useful, whether they want to sell products overseas or work in U.S. communities that are increasingly multiethnic.

Research supports the practices of many European nations: Children learn a second language more easily when they are young. As a result, language immersion programs have increased in elementary schools. In these classes, children learn the content of subjects such as math or science in the second language.

But that doesn't mean it's too late for older kids to benefit from language instruction.

Learning a second language has been correlated with improved reading ability in sixth-graders, to improved scores on the ACT and SAT, and academic success in college for high school students.

Students who take classical languages, like Latin and Greek, benefit, too. Rachel Gordon, a sophomore at Barnard College, started taking Latin as a high school freshman after taking Spanish in middle school.

Gordon says she took Latin because she heard it was one of the best courses offered at her high school, Berkeley High School in California.

"It actually was helpful to me on the SATs," Gordon says. "If I didn't know the words, I could find the root. We learned Greek and Roman history, and that's the basis of Western civilization."

Gordon says this knowledge has been helpful in college. "In philosophy, architecture, the myths - it just always pops up. It's not like you can use Latin when you go to the drug store. But I get a lot of references that other people don't."

Students with learning difficulties

Learning a second language can be quite difficult for students with some language disabilities.

American Sign Language, which is taught at many community colleges, is a visual, rather than written language that may be a good option. It's increasingly become accepted for high school graduation and college admission requirements, but it's important to check with your child's counselor to find out if he'll get credit for it.

Students with strong listening and speaking skills may find that Spanish with its predictable sound system is an option.

Stronger readers may find that Latin helps build English vocabulary and doesn't require as much verbal communication. For more information about language learning and learning disabilities, check LDOnline.

What colleges require

Many colleges require two years of a second language. But as the College Board notes, taking more language shows that a student is willing to go beyond the basics so they may prefer more. Check with your child's counselor and the colleges he is interested in for more information.

If your student is interested in studying abroad while in college, he should research these programs as part of his college search. But the good news is that most colleges allow students to participate in other institutions' study abroad programs, so most students enjoy a wide variety of options for foreign study.

How to evaluate a language class

A visitor to a high-quality language class is likely to see students working in pairs or small groups, using the target language. They might be asked to take turns composing a phone message they would leave if they were going to be late to meet a Spanish friend. Or they may be discussing an article they read on a Spanish newspaper's Web site. The point is to give kids a lot of time speaking the language and using it for real-life purposes. The communication is more student-directed with lessons drawn from the Internet or real-life experience. The teacher speaks very little English in class.

Veteran teacher Stemler asks students to make up skits to illustrate knowledge of the parts of the body, uses puppets in warm-up exercises to get students talking, teaches a rap to remember the months of the year and asks her more advanced students to interview native Spanish-speaking students at the school. Her most advanced students do day care for Spanish-speaking so they can attend meetings at the local middle school.

"Students are given a lot of speaking time," she says. "That means I have a lot less control of accuracy. It's not about perfection, but can you say something comprehensible? I correct, but I correct by repeating back in the correct form."

That doesn't mean grammar gets left behind. Says Bacon: "Grammar is embedded within the lessons, rather than saying we're going to conjugate Spanish verbs."

Students no longer memorize artificial dialogues that come from a textbook but use the target language to learn lessons taken from real life.

For example, many nations use the 24-hour clock to tell time, rather than the 12-hour clock commonly used in the United States. Incorporating this into a discussion about telling time gives students cultural information, as well as speaking practice.

Students' oral and written skills are regularly tested, but the tests aren't the fill-in-the-blank type. That's like having a piano teacher ask a child to play one note of a song, says Patrick. Better to ask students to talk or write about a real situation or a character in a story, educators say.

Students learn a second language best through context, research has shown. Seeing posters, newspapers or magazines in the second language; talking about the food; and listening to the music of a particular culture gives them that context. Video clips of native speakers can familiarize students with the gestures and other nonverbal communication clues commonly used in a particular culture.

Resources beyond the classroom

It takes a creative teacher to break through teen-age inhibitions, particularly for students who are getting their first experience trying out a new language.

"Think about how young kids learn," Patrick says. "They love to babble and try out new things. When you're an adolescent, you don't get to babble or you sound silly. They don't want to sound silly."

Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources on the Web to help teachers and engage students, from anime (animation) and manga (comics) to teach Japanese to free daily podcasts from sites like that students can use at school or at home.

Tom Welch is a former French teacher - and Kentucky Teacher of the Year - school principal and "director of seeding innovation" for the state's Department of Education. Currently a consultant, he sees himself as a revolutionary who wants to redesign the learning process. He says teachers have to be willing to expand their horizons, to capitalize on the enthusiasm of the kids. And parents may need to push them to do so.

"Folks need to remember that it's 2007," says Tom Welch. "The Internet is an unbelievable resource. It's not used much except to support a traditional classroom approach. The teacher needs to focus on learning a language for the students' purpose, not the teacher's purpose."

"If you're studying Mandarin and need help in biology, we have lots of ways of finding a tutor in China," he says. "And you know what? It's exactly 12 hours' difference between where I'm sitting and China. If you want to work at 12 p.m. or 12 a.m., we can do that."

"I see the teacher's responsibility as being a 'learning broker' roping in as many people from around the world into that effort that I can find."

Web safety is certainly an issue, Welch says, but he argues that it's up to schools to teach responsible use of the Web not try to block it out of classrooms.

The bottom line

Still not sure how to tell if your child is really learning to communicate in his language class? Patrick recommends you visit the classroom and try this:

"Watch a child with a stopwatch," she says. "In 50 minutes, how much did the child get to say? Ten seconds of speaking a day isn't enough."

Challenges language programs face

The College Board started offering AP classes in Mandarin and the federal government is offering grants to increase the study of critical languages. Portland schools and the University of Oregon, for example, are developing the nation's first Chinese language immersion program from kindergarten through college. But other districts are eliminating language programs to boost funding for subjects targeted by high-stakes tests.

It's difficult to build and maintain language programs without grants and the strong commitment of school officials, parents and community leaders. There's also a shortage of teachers, even in the languages most commonly spoken in the United States.

"Yes, a lot of people know Spanish," Bacon says. "But we need highly qualified teachers who can teach to standards."

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."