Learn a foreign language
Arizona Daily Star
July 29, 2005

Kathleen Conti, 16, is a student at Canyon del Oro High School

Young Voices: foreign languages


Parents rush to buy the latest "Baby Einstein" videos, teachers frantically attempt to prepare students for various life-or-death standardized tests, and legislators revise the infamous No Child Left Behind Act, yet we still seem to be falling behind in education.
Perhaps the solution is simpler than we thought - finally ensure that children are fluent in more than one language. Many children in other countries grow up learning two or more languages, while some Americans should barely be called fluent in their mother tongue.
Although high schools and universities in Arizona require two years of a foreign language, the average student does not reach fluency and readily loses his meager grasp of it.
Multiple studies have proved the distinct opportunity in children from birth to age 10 to achieve fluency. Once puberty hits, the brain undergoes a series of changes to trim down idle connections and thought processes, thus strengthening and enhancing the remaining ones.
The Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York did a series of studies regarding the brain's perception of languages. In those who learned two languages from an early age, the MRI showed three areas of activity: two smaller but equal clusters for each language and one large, overlapping area, which was where the brain processed both languages simultaneously. For those who learned another language later in life, their brains had two very separate and occasionally distant locations for storage and comprehension.
America has prided itself on being a "melting pot" for various cultures that have traversed the globe, but it is often selective and idealistic about which cultures are allowed to flavor the stew.
The 2000 U.S. Census stated that more than 18 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. This is a 75 percent increase since 1990 and still does not take into account those without official residency.
The world is getting smaller, and the utopian ideal that everyone should speak English is becoming ludicrous. Not only is the knowledge of more than one language a necessity for global citizenship, it enriches the brain in ways science is just beginning to realize.
In North Carolina, children who studied a foreign language in elementary school scored higher in reading, languages, arts and math than those who spoke only one language. Even their scores on the SAT and university entrance exams are higher.
Goethe, a German philosopher, said, "The person who knows only one language does not truly know that language." Educators and others claim there are insufficient funds for foreign language instruction. But if our children are to have a successful future, we must invest in language education.