Learning a foreign language is an immensely useful academic achievement that can be important to success in adult life. Studies show that learning another language can improve reading skills and test scores in other subjects. Learning other ways to communicate early in life helps students prepare for course requirements in college. There is also a growing need in the economy for workers who can speak multiple languages. Given its practical importance, it’s surprising and disturbing that foreign language learning isn’t given higher priority in state and federal educational objectives.
Diversity in America
As America becomes more diverse, the use of languages other than English continues to increase. Spanish is by far the most common: there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of the population. In some communities, the use of Spanish is far higher, so that English is not the primary language in many schools. Most official documents are now available in Spanish, and in some communities and businesses it has become almost a necessity for Americans to know Spanish. There has also been an increase in the use of Chinese and Arabic.
Improved Reading Skills
Learning a second language tends to improve students’ reading skills. Familiarity with Greek and Latin introduces children to many of the root words in the English language, and learning their complex grammar rules has long been thought to aid in the development of memory skills and mental discipline. Spanish, Italian, and French – all of which are “Romance” languages that are descended from Latin – have numerous cognates (words that sound similar and have similar or related meanings) with English, and learning their vocabularies can help build a student’s English vocabulary and provide insight into his or her own language. Since English grammar is no longer taught as a discrete subject by most schools, lessons in the grammar of another language is often the only instruction in the subject that many students receive.
Better Test Scores
Learning other ways to communicate helps students achieve higher scores on standardized tests, including the ones students are required to pass in many states to graduate from high school, and the ACT and SAT college-entrance exams. Bilingual students are able to use what know from other languages to deduce the meanings of unfamiliar words in English. Many foreign-language classes in the United States also address the history and culture of the countries where the that language is primarily spoken, and this, too, can help inform the student during history and civics exams.
Many colleges have foreign language requirements for graduation. This is especially true for Liberal Arts, Humanities, and Education degrees, but also in some fields of science in which a significant amount of research is published in other languages. In addition to the popular European and Asian languages, many colleges accept sign language as a qualifying second language toward graduation requirements. The earlier students begin learning a second language, the easier it is to learn and the more fluent they tend to become, so that by the time they reach college, a high degree of fluency may be reached and the language requirements will be easily fulfilled.
A second language is great preparation for a career. Many jobs in business and government require employees to communicate with people who speak languages other than English, both within the United States and abroad. The military, national security agencies, and the Department of State are particularly in need of language skills, as are multinational corporations and businesses that sell (or want to sell) overseas. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the fields of international environmental protection, health, and social justice, among others, desperately need workers who can communicate with their constituencies around the world.
Learning a second language is important to your children’s educational performance and to his or her career success. We urge you to support your children’s second-language education in every way possible.