This is a neck and neck debate that has continued for many years and still has not come to a solid conclusion. According to statistics, 47% of people believe that’s an essential part of life that students should learn Spanish while in school while 53% do not. As I said, it’s neck and neck and has been for a long time. But why is this such a debated issue?
In the UK, French and German classes are taught as part of the national curriculum in secondary schools, as well as multiple other languages such as Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese being taught as optional extras. However, in the US, there is no ‘forced’ foreign languages to be found on the timetables. In today’s fast-paced, developing and highly connected world, some would argue that learning another language is a necessity for students to become more cultured while gaining the ability to connect with other people from around the globe effortlessly.
But why Spanish, I hear you ask. Well, referring to the UK timetables, Germany and France are both highly diverse countries that are physically close and easily accessible to students of the UK, so it just makes sense. Regarding the US, neighboring countries including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and other countries, all of which have a clear majority that speaks Spanish (or some variation of it).
Furthermore, without even leaving the US, there are over 37 million fluent Spanish speakers living in the US, making it the most commonly spoken foreign language in the country. This is a 233% increase from 1980. In fact, more people speak Spanish in the US than they do in Spain itself. Surely it only makes sense that students should have the ability to communicate, even on a basic level with these individuals since the chances are that they’ll come into contact with them at some point in their lives?
One of the most counter-arguments is that students should, and do, have the ability to learn any language that they choose. With online learning programs, apps and Spanish classes, the opposing sides simply states that if a student wanted to learn a foreign language, such as Spanish, then they would. However, it’s unknown exactly how many students have access to these programs, especially through education facilities.
Some others argue that speaking Spanish helps students to gain more opportunities when it comes to job hunting and to moving abroad which provokes the counter-argument that, again, students would learn Spanish on their own terms if they were interested in moving to a Spanish-speaking country.
As you can see, this a well-balanced argument with good points on both sides. In regards to resources and government funding, it doesn’t seem as though the US government will be funding any Spanish classes anytime soon, so it seems to be up to the individuals to find ways to educate themselves.
This generation of K-12 students is growing up in a society that is increasingly bilingual. Foreign language requirements have long been a core requirement for high school graduation and are also part of most arts-based college degree programs. Along with Spanish, languages like French and German are common options for students.
But just how "foreign" is Spanish in today's society? The U.S. Census estimates that there are 50.5 million Hispanic people living in America, and another 3.7 who are residents of Puerto Rico. This number represents a 43 percent increase in the recorded Hispanic population from 2000 to 2010 at a rate four times faster than the rest of the U.S. population. Further, 35 million children 5 and over spoke Spanish at home in 2010. English as a second language K-12 programs have existed for decades, but maybe that program should be expanded.
Should English-speaking K-12 students be required to learn Spanish? Let's take that question one step further: should bilingual learning be part of every U.S. classroom, no matter what the subject?
Some individual school districts have already taken the initiative to make dual-language programs a reality. The Irving Independent School District in Texas started a bilingual elementary program 10 years ago. Students can opt to learn in an environment that is taught 50 percent in English and 50 percent in Spanish. In Irving, 70 percent of the student population is Hispanic. Critics of the program cite the usual reason that my grandmother may have listed against American students learning a foreign language in school classrooms: Americans should speak ENGLISH. There is also some concern about whether each language can truly be mastered if it is sharing classroom time with the other.
Studies in language development, however, show that the more exposure young children have to all languages actually gives them a distinct academic advantage throughout life. Bilingual children are able to focus more intently on the topics at hand and avoid distractions from academic pursuits. They are also able to demonstrate higher levels of cognitive flexibility, or the ability to change responses based on environment and circumstances.
For children to truly see the full potential multi-lingualism has on learning, exposure to non-native languages should actually begin long before Kindergarten. Even children who learn their first Spanish words at the age of 5 can benefit from dual language curriculum though. Learning is learning. The more that children can take advantage of new concepts, the more in tune their brains will be to all learning throughout life. Some studies have also found that the aging of the brain is slower and the employment rate is higher in adults with bilingual capabilities. Why not set kids up for success and strengthen long-term brain health while we are at it?
There are also the cultural benefits to children learning two languages together. The children who come from English-speaking homes can lend their language expertise to friends from Spanish-speaking homes, and vice versa. Contemporary communication technology has eliminated many global barriers when it comes to socialization and even doing business. It makes sense that language boundaries should also come down and with help from our K-12 education system.
Dual language programs show students a broader world view, whatever the native language of the student, and lead to greater opportunities for collaborative learning. We should not limit what children learn based on outdated principles masked in patriotism. All K-12 students should have Spanish and English fluency by graduation.
What is your opinion on mandating bi-lingual education programs in the future?