Is it really that important for students in Maine to learn a second language?

language learningTaxpayers, teachers, board members, parents, and administrators in Maine sometimes wonder why we should fund an elementary and middle school World Language program in the public schools when taxes are so high and students seem to be having such trouble with subjects like math and reading.

First, everyone should realize that according to LD 1422, we are obligated by law to make sure students achieve proficiency in a second language before they graduate from high school. Proficiency, as defined by national standards set by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, means reaching the Intermediate Mid Level in Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing. The Intermediate Mid level means a student can communicate basic needs with relative ease but is not yet able to discuss complex topics.

Reaching this level of proficiency requires many hours of language study. High school students need to be working at the AP level in order to pass an assessment at the Intermediate Mid level. After four years of high school study most students are still at the Intermediate Low level – not yet proficient. Therefore, in order for students to reach proficiency by graduation, they need to begin serious language study before they enter high school.

Students who begin studying a second language in elementary school should be able to enter high school approaching the Novice High Level – if they have been enrolled in a sequential program with adequate time to permit language acquisition. Students who continue language study in high school will then realistically be able to achieve proficiency before graduation. Some may achieve proficiency a year or so before finishing high school if they enter at the Novice High Level.

Our students are entering a world where many employers look for applicants who know more than one language. Selective colleges look for students who have pursued language study in high school. The most selective colleges insist on language study during all four years of high school. Why is everyone so focused on learning a second language? Why isn’t English good enough? After all, lots of people in the world do speak English.

In the past, we thought of language study as something that enabled those who wanted to travel to enjoy some fun trips abroad. Now language study is essential for the world of work. We live in an interdependent global economy where seventy-five percent of the population does not speak English. Aside from the importance of speaking other languages, students also need to be comfortable interacting with people from other cultures if they are to do business with them. Language study opens one to the idea that there is more than one valid way to do things; it forces an understanding that the point of view of others is legitimate and interesting; it teaches one to meet people from other cultures with ease and to interact with them in a culturally sensitive manner.

Language study helps growing minds because it demands making connections and comparisons with one’s own language – thus enhancing intellectual development and further developing English-language skills. The earlier one starts learning a second language the more this study enhances overall cognitive development. Also, the earlier one starts learning another language, the better one will be at achieving near-native pronunciation in the language.

Language study is a key element of a 21st century education. Students in rural areas should not be left behind in the acquisition of these skills that will enable them to participate in the global economy. Funding elementary and middle school language programs does come with a modest price tag, but we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend our way back to another century. We need to embrace the present.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.