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Learning languages

02/13/06 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST)If your high school French is mostly a distant memory, it may be because you didn't start learning it young enough. Commentator Mike Martin says many educators today believe that languages should be taught at the elementary school level.

(MARTIN) A friend of mine likes to joke that for Americans, learning foreign languages is like losing weight - we know it's good for us; we just never get around to doing it. Well, this may be changing now. This past month, the Vermont Department of Education sponsored public hearings to get information on how to establish k-12 language programs in Vermont schools. And President Bush has just announced the National Security Language Initiative. It calls for $114 million to be spent on foreign language programs nationwide.

We know that young children learn languages instinctively, so more and more parents are asking schools to start foreign language programs early, before middle school. If you remember middle school, you may recall that awkward time when puberty had you terrified and you just wanted to be like everyone else. So you can understand why this is perhaps the hardest time to get students to embrace strange customs and get funny noises to come out of their mouths. And aside from the realities of social life for twelve-year olds, new research shows that the human brain is wired to learn language at a young age, but then, with adolescence, it starts to lose this ability. That's why language programs need to start early when they can be the most effective. If we're serious about foreign languages, we can't cut our elementary programs every time the budget is tight.

The kids get it. They seem to understand the times better than we do. They don't dream about globalization, they're already living it. They also know that language studies improve your geography, public speaking, critical thinking, and even your English. And they know that colleges are looking for students with good foreign language skills.

A former student of mine, now in his first year at the Air Force Academy, told me the military is really pushing for more language training. They have discovered that technology can't do everything; they need what is called "human intelligence" as well. And when you need to win foreigners' hearts and minds as urgently as we do now, nothing beats learning their languages and customs. Our own Senator Leahy has been saying for some time now that our national security depends on having more folks who speak foreign languages and are culture-savvy.

The late Miriam Anderson, a former governor of Texas, opposed Spanish programs in Texas schools. She is reported to have said, famously, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us." Well, I think very few people would agree with her nowadays. Not just because Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, but also because we know how crucial languages are in today's world. We know that in the Information Age, knowing more languages means getting better information. We know that many of our children will live abroad or work for foreign clients. We know that we should start teaching them languages early - now we just have to do it.

I'm Mike Martin of Burlington.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.
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