Sunday, May 10, 2009

Teaching Foreign Languages and School

Originally posted in Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, April 5, 2007

The State College School district is seeking our input on “opportunities and challenges in preparing students for their futures,” as part of their 2007–2013 strategic planning process. I gave my input by filling out their online survey “Strategic Response Survey Form,” at

As I did so, I kept in mind the National Governors Association meeting held in February, 2007, which called for “a national commitment to changing our education to meet the challenges of globalization and international competition.”They suggested that we change our current mindset, overhaul our education system nationally and focus on teaching math, science, technology, engineering and foreign language proficiency.

My recommendations - please start teaching a foreign language in elementary school, strengthen the math and science curriculum, foster global understanding, teach students to rebuild local communities – it would be a wasted opportunity if we do not attend to these.

Learning language as a child is relatively easy. I grew up in India, where children are routinely exposed to multiple languages as a matter of course, especially in bigger cities. In Mumbai (Bombay), I spoke Malayalam at home, since my parents came from the southern state of Kerala. My parents spoke Tamil or Malayalam with a few neighbors, and Hindi (the national language) or Marathi (the state language) with the other neighbors who also spoke Kannada, Konkani, or other languages, depending on the state they originally came from.

Growing up in this environment, I quickly learnt Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi from home and neighbors, and English at school starting at age 3. Kids who did not go to English Medium schools start learning English around age 7.

Schools in India also teach Hindi, the national language around age 8, and the regional language of the state (in my case Marathi) at age 9 or 10. Many people who grow up in Mumbai, end up speaking 4 to 5 different languages. Some of us were also lucky to learn other foreign languages like French or German in high school, if our schools offered that option.

If SCASD introduces a foreign language in elementary school, it would be joining a local charter school, Young Scholars of Central PA, and a host of other countries that do so already.

On March 12, 2007 the United Kingdom announced that all school children will start learning a modern foreign language at age 7, from 2010.

The March 29, 2007 edition of the Christian Science Monitor reports the ages when children in some parts of Europe start learning a second language: France: 5; Austria, Belgium, and Sweden: 6; Italy: between 6 and 7; Germany: 6 and 8; Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands: 8; Denmark: 9; Finland: 10, while in the US, many kids start learning foreign languages at age 13.

Of course, learning a foreign language is only one step towards preparing students for the global economy, we also need to build empathy and understanding of other cultures.

Add to that a study of ethical behavior and respect towards our fellow human beings and the planet – both locally and globally - helping us perhaps figure out how to stay self sufficient locally in a global environment.

Add to this a strong focus on science and math, and a healthy respect for achievement in these areas.

From these, will come the answers to meeting the challenges of increasing energy demand, global warming, increased materialism and - may even help us find a way to end strife in the world.

For those who want to contribute your thoughts to SCASD, please go to “Strategic Response Survey Form,” at

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