should foreign language classes be required in college?

In the December 2016 “Room for Debate” from the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, three high school students shared their thoughts on then-recent proposal by Princeton University that would require college students to study another language, even if they are already proficient in another language. The students’ responses varied significantly. Yes, one said. It’s a global world out there and students need to be able to communicate in another language besides English in order to be competitive. No, said the second. Learning to think is more important than struggling to express your thoughts in another language. It depends, said the third. It depends because it depends on a student’s goals; really, if we’re going to require students to learn a second language, we should really starting requiring it in kindergarten.

These students’ responses are not unlike responses politicians and educators have thrown around in the past, but what I find interesting is the common threads they all share. First, each of these students recognizes that, by the time a student reaches college, it’s already way too late to introduce them to a second language: The time to learn a language is when you’re young and your brain’s neural pathways are still being formed. Second, they all recognize the inherent value of knowing a second (or third, or fourth) language. The way they define these values are different, but they all see second-language learning as being beneficial. And third, they all feel that something needs to be changed about the way second-language learning is being approached in the United States. The American education system is falling short and, in so doing, failing our children.

And I have to say, I agree. The American education system is failing its children, and something does need to be done — long before students reach college. Learning a second language is critical for all kinds of reasons, but the one I feel most strongly about is one that isn’t usually talked about — or at least isn’t fully understood.

英速全體合照

With a group of 5th graders in Taiwan. Can you find me? :D

When I was 25 I moved to Taiwan. I moved to a little city called Sanjhih, about an hour north of Taipei, to teach English at a camp for 5th graders. Originally I was only going to stay for seven months, but I ended up staying for two years, and afterward I lived in Hong Kong for a year. In both cities I found myself surrounded by an unfamiliar people, language, and culture, and at first it was really hard. I was incredibly homesick and thought many times about returning home. Ultimately, though, it was my students who changed my mind. My Taiwanese students — bright, inquisitive 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds — were for the most part incredibly sweet, and I was blown away not only by their sweetness, but also by their similarity to the 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds I knew back home, as well as by their aptitude for English. Many of my students were already quite adept English speakers — fluent, even — despite the drastic difference between the English language and their native tongues. But more than that, English or no English, they were kids like any other kids found anywhere else in the world. The barriers that cultures and countries and religion and political systems create wasn’t in place yet. These kids were just KIDS. (People are PEOPLE.)

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Suffice it to say when I came back to the United States, I returned with a new set of eyes. I could no longer see my own country in the same light, nor I could I see those from other countries in the same light. A foreigner struggling to ask for directions in broken English was a person in a strange land trying to get by, just as I had been trying to get by, struggling to ask for directions in Mandarin at a 7-11 in Taiwan. The noisy group of tourists from mainland China was no longer an annoying group of tourists but an interesting group of people with a unique culture and background. Living abroad and the little bit of Mandarin and Cantonese I’d learned while I was there had changed my perspective on the entire world immensely, and I would never be able to go back to the narrower mindset I’d had before.

That said, it is very true that, because I wasn’t (and still am not) fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, I felt very isolated while living abroad. I know that if I’d been able to communicate more easily, I would have gained a better understanding of the culture in which I was living. I also recognized while living abroad just how difficult it would be to master a second language like Mandarin, and that if I would ever have been able to do so, I would need to have started very young — very young, as in, kindergarten.

jGHNy51According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American students lag way behind European students in language learning. In her article presenting the study, Kat Devlin says, “Across Europe, students typically begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9. Furthermore, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries . . . Meanwhile, far fewer K-12 students in the U.S. participate in foreign language education. Throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 20 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education.”

This is, I feel, more than a shame — it’s doing our students harm. The cognitive benefits of learning a second language have been proven time and time again. The potential for improved job prospects and general understanding of other cultures is also vastly improved by knowledge of other languages. The United States is home to people from all different backgrounds, with roughly 65.3 million Americans over the age of four (i.e., approx. 21 percent) speaking a language other than English at home (2015 U.S. Census). If this is the case, and if my own experience in Asia is true (which it most certainly is), how much could we stand to gain if we started implementing the European language-learning model in our country? What would the results be if we started teaching our kids a second language in kindergarten? How much wiser would they be? How much more understanding of others? How much more competitive in the global job market? How much more culturally aware both abroad and at home?

At the rate the United States is going, we’ll likely never know. Things seem to move at a snails’ pace when it comes to making changes in education at the federal level. According to Dan Davidson’s “Notes on the American Academy Commission Report: America’s Languages (2017),” the founders of our country understood that “the study of language in the U.S. was a complex and varied endeavor, so much so that they determined not to establish an official state language for the new nation. They supported inquiries into what they referred to as the ‘rationale, genius and idiom of the English language,’” as well as examined Native American languages and linguistics more generally, as they believed that an “appreciation of the plurality of languages would improve communication domestically and internationally, and help the new nation understand its place in a changing world.” And yet here we are more than 200 years later, lagging behind the rest of the world in this very key area.

That said, if anyone brings up the argument, “Well, if we’re going to teach a second language, what language should we teach? There are so many here in the States, after all—how do you choose?” To them, I say, Any spoken language! It doesn’t matter. The results and benefits of knowing a second or third are the same no matter what language is being studied.

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With my language-exchange friends in Taiwan–Mandarin is hard!

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Note: Sorry for my long absence! I actually wrote this as an assignment for a grad school class. Grad school is hard!

can/’t

Emails, voicemails, recommended stories, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, T.V., Pandora, NOISE.

Oh my God. My head spins.

I can’t keep up.

Can’t, can’t, can’t. The words roar in the furnace of my head. Who said them first?

I sit in a class full of writers. The room is dark and hot. Our teacher—a dark-haired Muskogee* whose henna-tattooed hands and bohemian attire make me feel wildly out of place in my blue blouse, white shorts, and silver sandals—talks about her time as an MFA student at the esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She’s a published author and playwright and plays the saxophone in a Native American jazz band. She expects us to read and write more in a shorter period of time than I have in years.

I am terrified.

I look around me. The other students appear calm. I see no traces on their faces of the panic I am feeling inside. I play the saxophone. I know how to write. But . . . I don’t belong here.

**

I’m standing with a group of triathletes. We’re on a dock down by the river in the heart of Knoxville. The sun beats violently upon us, creating a steam of humidity so thick that every breath digs in me a hole of longing for the West Coast so large that I’m certain I’ll fall in, never to surface anywhere ever again . . . Instead, I climb into a kayak and watch the swimmers glide. Their movements look effortless, easy.

I grew up swimming, but I can’t swim like that. Who am I?

**

I pick up a book today. It’s something my brother gave me when I was home in July. It’s the story of an overweight middle-aged former athlete who, at 39, decided he wanted to live again. The memoir is mostly typical—an out-of-shape dude changes his lifestyle and ends up winning Ironman-distance world championships; ya know, no big deal, right?—but the last chapter hits me hard. In it, the author talks about the importance of mindset, setting goals, improving our diets, and becoming the hero of our own stories. And through it, he challenges me revisit my own story.

Can’t, can’t, can’t. Who said that first? I did.

I don’t belong here, don’t belong her-, don’t belong . . . Who said that first? I did.

Who am I, I, I? Who said that first? I did.

I bought into the stories I was telling myself a long time ago—feelings of inadequacy and failure. Deep down I knew the stories weren’t true, but instead of squashing them, I allowed them to become my beliefs . . . My beliefs became my patterns. My patterns became my habits. My habits became the very way I saw the world.

But now . . .

Now I am wondering: What if, instead of saying I can’t, I say, “I CAN“?


*member of the Mvskoke Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe based in the U.S. state of Oklahoma

 

 

at the end of the day

(Note: For this post to make any sense, you’ll first need to read my last one.)

I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m HERE, I’M HERE.

But but but but but . . .

You didn’t get it. I wasn’t clear. It’s not just home I’m talking about; it’s an awareness: I’m HERE. 

“Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love.” Here is also a presence of mind, a recognition of where we stand and what we stand for and what we (really) want and what has made us who we are.

In the ever-increasing madness of today’s world, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget to consider these questions. But these queries are important because answering them (or not) is what shapes the course of our lives… Because the other side of the coin is that we really do change. How we change and what we accomplish is up to us and requires self-awareness and honesty with ourselves.

While I was home in California in July, I skimmed through a journal I wrote in Italy half my lifetime ago. I was shocked to see some of the things I’d written. Who IS this person?! I marveled. The fanciful view I had of the world at 17 does not match the world I’ve experienced as an adult. And yet going back in time helped me better understand the decisions I made at 17 (or 25, or 33) that have shaped the person I’ve become. It helped me be kinder to my younger and older self.

How do I mean? Living in Asia gave me a greater cultural perspective of the world. Talking to people has given me greater empathy. Holding various jobs has given me greater insight into others’ lives. Going back to school has made me realize just how quickly time goes . . .

Not all people are as reflective as I am. And that’s okay. You do your weird and I’ll do mine. But as for me, I want my years on this planet to MEAN something. And not just for me.

 

home again

Muddy. Like the murky shallows of Trinity Lake when the waters have drop-drop-dropped and sucked the shoreline muck into red clay pools swirled with yesterday’s bath water. Like the ash falling from nearby fires, engulfing an entire state in smoke and soot, a sickly yellow fog no place should ever see (let alone breathe). My thoughts were hazy.

Who am I? And why am I here?

I needed distance. Distance from the he-said-she-said. Distance from the rush-rush-rush of hurryupandwaiting. Distance from the clammy humid-cloud that enveloped me the moment I opened my front door.

In all of my years in Tennessee and abroad, I have never been so homesick.

I flew West on July 12 and cried when I landed at the San Francisco International Airport. I laughed when I heard a passenger complaining about California’s gun laws. I smiled when I shivered as I walked to my rental car. I was home.

Home with all of its myriads of problems is still home.

I spent three weeks visiting friends and family. I played with my 15-month-old nephew. I sorted through childhood memory boxes and read old letters and journal entries. I relived my twenties like a movie watched in reverse—this is who I am; this is why I’m here . . . Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love. I’m here I’m here I’m-here I’m-here-I’m-HERE.

It’s raining today in Knoxville, pouring buckets in a fashion California rarely sees (and sorely needs). I’m not home anymore. But this is home for now, for reasons I must cling to, no matter life’s sea.

After all, those reasons are ME.

 

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nobody knows

I didn’t mean to let this sit so long. There’s a story here that hasn’t been told.

It’s the story of a 14-year-old girl walking her dog under the shade of oak trees in the California sun. She wondered why she had to feel this way. She was scared of her feelings. Her crush had written her a letter. He liked her, too.

Why, if she had food to eat and air to breathe, why did she have to have emotions, too? Even at 14, she was scared of rejection.

Fast forward a thousand years. Her heart’s been broken many times. He loved her—and still does—but he had a higher calling to attend to.

She will always love him.

At 1,034, she’s a million years old. The world is her oyster, but even that is not enough. She’s one in a billion, and her story is the same. How can she matter? How can this mean . . . anything?

She’s seen a lot in a million years. Most recently it’s been adults acting like children. At our cores we all want the same things—love and acceptance. Why is this so hard to admit?

. . . and where are all the dreamers? The ones who think beyond the here and now? They are few and far between, it seems. And she doesn’t understand.

And so she fights for her life as she rides out life’s storm, and she fights for her life on the train. And she goes . . . nobody knows . . . Except for the dreamers. They’re one in the same.

P.S. Happy Independence Day, America.

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*Featured image: Mine. Taken in Knoxville on a bike ride two days ago!!

thoughts on a sunday morning

I’m sitting at my kitchen counter sipping caramel coffee and wishing I had more time. Time to explore, time to read, time to help, time to breathe. I’m lucky, too. Luckier than most. But still, this world and the time we are allotted are not enough.

I made a friend recently who told me he’s an atheist. After hearing more of his life story, I didn’t wonder why.

I have friends who had wonderful childhoods who’ve become atheists, too. You never know.

Living in Asia made me question everything I’d ever been taught about religion. I still don’t have any answers.

I’ve been thinking, too, about expectations and desires versus reality. Reality never aligns itself with Hollywood versions of caked-out weddings and happily-ever-afters. Even in the happily-ever-afters, reality’s life is HARD.

Patience is HARD.

Never compare your life to anyone else’s, people say . . . while they post on social media happy images of the engagement party they attended yesterday. No one says anything about the anxiety leading up to the party or the way they REALLY feel inside . . . Or if they do they’re looking for sympathy. That’s just as bad.

You CAN’T win.

Or can you?

Me I just forge forward, fighting for positive and looking for good, being myself and not apologizing for being real. You lose every time you lie to yourself or others. Honesty is HUGE.

Yesterday I participated in my first dragon boat race. It was a fundraiser for Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and a great bonding experience with my newfound poetry and game friends. I was exhausted when it was over, but thrilled to have gotten to join in on an event I’d previously only watched in Hong Kong.

Oh the memories.

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blessed

It’s Father’s Day. We all have the world’s best father, don’t we? Except those who don’t. Or those who have lost their dads. Or those who never knew them to begin with.

Life isn’t fair.

That’s one thing my mother taught me as a child: Life isn’t fair, so stop expecting it to be. She was right. I met a young man recently who broke my heart. A “thug” on the outside, he quickly showed that he’d had an unstable childhood at best. He had no support system, and as an adult, he was hurting.

How much of who we are is who we are, and how much of it is where we came from?

Me, though—I was blessed. I have two amazing parents. My dad is and always has been my best friend. He knows me better than anyone. We think alike, and he’s always been there for me with open ears and ready arms—no matter the hour, no matter how tired, no matter what he himself is going through. He’s the most giving person I’ve ever met—giving to a fault, in fact. (Dad, you need to take care of YOU!!)

But I love him for it and know he will always put others first, no matter what I or my brother say. We’re a trio, really. My brother is amazing, too—why don’t we have a Sibling’s Day, by the way?—and this is perhaps the hardest part about being so far from home. I miss being surrounded by people who know me and love me just as I am. I wish I could be closer to watch my nephew grow. But, alas, I have to follow my own path, and my path has taken me to Tennessee.

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Today I want to share with you an event from this past week, which actually started earlier (the “backstory” from my last post), and which I couldn’t have done without my dad, who has encouraged me every step of my non-traditional way.

Back in March I wrote a post about attending my first “Poetry Slam.” The “Slam” meets once a month, and last month I got brave and recited a couple of my old poems. It was nerve-wracking, but afterward a guy reached out to me and said he and his friends had really liked my work. He invited me to a game night, which I later attended, and in a span of about five weeks my social circle in Knoxville has nearly doubled.  Thanks to my new friend I now have numerous contacts to do crazy things with like hike, rock climb, sky dive, and more. And even cooler? I no longer have to attend Poetry Slams alone! This is a video my friends took of me at this month’s Slam. Some of you may recognize my work.

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All of this to say, NONE of this would have been possible without my dad. He’s been there for me through thick and thin and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He’s supported me through every life transition and trusted that I was making the right decisions. He’s visited me wherever I am and is always been just a phone call away. He’s my biggest supporter and number one fan, and is exactly the kind of parent I wish everyone had . . . What an amazing place this world would be if that were true!!

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you!