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Global Savvy

02/28/07 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) As part of our week on the Future of Education in Vermont, commentator Mike Martin considers how the teaching of foreign languages and culture may change - as the need for global literacy grows.

(MARTIN) I remember my first encounter with a different culture was in La Pocatiere, a small town northeast of Quebec City. Our French teacher had organized an exchange program to deep Quebec, and we Eighth Graders had no idea what we were in for. Our host families drove really fast, wore lots of fur and leather, and ate pizza with a fork and knife. I would later learn that this is called "joie de vivre," but at the time I just remember thinking how strange it all was. Growing up in Vermont, I had never met people so outwardly affectionate, exuberant, and extravagant. Just a few hours north of my hometown was this culture that was so different from my own. I immediately realized I had a lot to learn about the rest of the world.

Nowadays, we all realize our schools must teach our young people more about the rest of the world. Not a week goes by without some new commission from our military, government, or business leaders asking for young people who are more "culture-literate" and proficient in other languages.

Most experts agree that the only way to get a good understanding of a culture is by learning its language. According to an old saying, you can't translate poetry or humor; but there's actually a lot more that gets lost in translation: future friendships, business deals, and even alliances.

Until now, we haven't worked very hard at learning other languages and studying other cultures. With the pre-eminence of American culture and power, and with English being such a universal language, we haven't really needed to. But with globalization and the growing realization that our country can't go it alone in the 21st Century, we suddenly need our schools to create global citizens. We know that our children's futures depend on it.

Resettlement, travel, and technology have given most young Vermonters a more sophisticated view of the world than I had as a kid here. Many have met someone from Bosnia, or Mexico, or Rwanda, or Russia, or the Congo. In addition, many great teachers still organize pen-pal and exchange programs abroad. And with satellite TV and online newspapers, students are discussing news reports from around the world, in real time -- and reading them in the original language.

Technology and globalization have transformed our schools, and the changes in the near future will be even more dramatic.

Vermonters have always been practical, and so, despite the costs, they'll probably ask schools for programs that prepare students for success in the global economy. In the past we've cut language programs from school budgets because we didn't think we could afford them - now we probably can't afford to do without them.

In the coming years, we'll probably see language programs and international education finally taken seriously as rigorous and important elements of the core curriculum. And "off-campus" learning might be a lot farther away than you expected.

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

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