Language education in Maine should not follow a zip code

Language teachers in the USA have special skills that will be especially important to the health of our nation in the new, rapidly approaching political era. These skills include the ability to teach English-speakers to converse with recent immigrants – and vice versa; the ability to share the experiences of those whose lives differ from one’s own, and thus develop in students the habit of empathy; and the ability to teach the recognition of different perspectives, and help students understand that there are multiple, legitimate, peaceful ways to view shared experience.

Over eight thousand language teachers gathered this past week in Boston at the national conference of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). What an impressive group! They are either people whose first languages are Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Indo-European yet also speak English, or else they are English speakers who have had significant experiences living with and learning from people from cultural groups other than their own. Energy, intelligence, a broad world view, rich experience, and the desire to constantly learn new things about themselves and others mark language teachers in this country.

Maine is currently experiencing both a shortage of language teachers and a deep divide between those children who have access to language learning and those who do not. Schools in the wealthy zip code areas of Southern Maine provide vigorous language programs beginning either in the elementary or middle school years for their students. Most schools in the rest of Maine offer no more than a few years of high school language classes – too little, way too late. Some offer a taste of language learning in the early years, but teachers are spread way too thin, and the place of language study in the curriculum is too marginalized, for these classes to make much impact.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in response to a bipartisan request from Congress, will be releasing a report in February detailing the important place language study should play in the education of our youth. The report will point to national security and economic health and competitiveness as two areas that rely on a citizenry capable of communicating at a high level in more than one language. ACTFL emphasizes a third area, which is the development of empathy in our citizens.

The times we are living in demand a strengthening of the empathy muscle and of language education in our schools. Please urge your school and district leaders to meet the educational needs of the students in their care by building a robust language education program that begins in elementary school.

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.