We start our students learning languages too late

Proficiency in a second language is important and is most easily achieved by those who start young and who have the good luck to be educated in a school system that has a coherent and sequential language program.

In this age of globalization, schools should be prioritizing all aspects of global education. While just one element of a global education program, the language component is crucial to educating citizens who understand on a deep level issues of belonging to a global community.

Most countries in the world these days understand the importance of second language learning and are willing to invest in making sure their citizens can communicate across international lines. The US lags in this area.

On the whole we start our students learning languages late and we focus too often on grammar rules instead of communication. While our national standards for graduation include communicative proficiency in a language,  many districts wait until high school to start their students, and many teachers work from a textbook.

William Alexander points out on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times today in  “The Benefits of Failing at French” that we have “…roughly six years of life during which the brain is wired for learning language.”  He also talks about the increasing challenge we face as we age of “…(hearing)the second language through the filter of the first.” In other words,  if we start a language early it’s going to be a lot easier to gain proficiency.

Alexander’s piece focuses on overall cognitive gains from language learning. So not only does solid programming in languages bolster global competency, it also strengthens the brain.

In the United States local decision-making controls educational spending. Taxpayers should urge their school board members and school administrators to prioritize a carefully-developed second language program that begins in kindergarten.





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.