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.

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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!

back to the beginning

Roughly eight years ago, I made the decision to move to Taiwan for what I thought would be a seven-month period. I thought I was going to go to grad school in the fall of 2011, but as it turned out, I ended up staying in Asia for almost three years — two in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. These experiences changed my life forever, and it is partly because of them that I’m studying Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics at the University of Tennessee today. For my final project last semester, I addressed metaphor theory in Mandarin. I won’t go into detail about metaphor theory here, but I wanted to share at least part of my final paper with you, as it highlights experiences that have made me me and greatly influence some of the things you see on my blog today. My story starts right around New Year Eve 2010. I started teaching in Taiwan in January, 2010.

I didn’t know anything about Taiwan when I was invited to teach there in the summer of 2009. I didn’t know what language was spoken, or what the climate was like, or, sadly, even where it was located. “It’s right off the coast of China,” my friend Laura* told me. “It’s really cool, and the kids are great. We live in Sanzhi, about 20 minutes from work. I’m thinking about buying a scooter.” (The rest of the teachers commuted to work in a van together, apparently, or took a bus to the closest MRT station to get into Taipei.) Laura was not the most detail-oriented and talked fast when she was excited. Continue reading

on new years eve

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New Years in Hong Kong

Where you are, the ball may have already dropped. I know it has for my friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong. But maybe you live in Hawaii, or Alaska, or some other remote place — I don’t know where.

It’s 2015, no, 2016. Hip hip hooray! A new year. But somewhere in there, in between the shiny memories of my youth — when I held my breath and clung to each passing moment; counted eagerly, haltingly, “5… 4… 3…”; when lips were rosy and blushes, plenty — somewhere between innocence and the glaze of adulthood (I’ll be doing laundry tonight — what’s another year?), something got lost.

What happened to the magic? What happened to the nostalgia?

I won’t lie: 2015 has been a tough year. I won’t be sorry to see it go. Unlike many others, however, I don’t place all my hope in what lies ahead. I know that good will come in 2016, and that I am the master of my destiny, but there are things that are out of my control: no new year is all sunshine and roses.

And so I look forward to the new year resolutely. I will make the best of both the good and bad in 2016, and will always make the best decisions that I can. I promise to always be kind — even to myself. I won’t make resolutions I can’t keep but will continue living as I have, making the most of every day. I will learn from and cherish the past, but I won’t live for it; I’ll live for the future. And, most importantly, I will always follow my heart.

fate?

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Writing Camp, Summer 2014

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My favorite professor in college used to tell a story. As a young man, he’d been in a jazz band and then the army. He’d traveled solo around the world, dreamed of being a pilot, gone to flight school. After receiving his pilot’s license, however, he couldn’t find work. Times were desperate; money, scarce. One day, in a moment of frustration, he cried out, “Lord, please . . . What do you want me to do?!” Continue reading

cling to hope

Some of you have wondered where I’ve been. I’ve been posting less often, commenting the same . . . Have I given up blogging? Have I given up loving? Am I heartless? Do I not care?

Hardly, friends! Anything but! I do care, and care all the more! It’s just . . . my life has been shifting. To give you a review:

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In December, 2009, I moved to Taiwan. My viewpoints were challenged. My perspectives, changed.

I shifted.

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At Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan

Continue reading

this blood will bleed us dry

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Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe on January 3. This place should be BURIED in snow.

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There’s a story often told about the Eskimos. In the dead of winter, when out hunting caribou, hunters plant blood-covered knives blade up in the snow around their camp at night. The blood on the knives attracts wolves who, rather than attack the camp as they would have, lick the blades excitedly, thus cutting their tongues. The wolves are so excited about the blood, however, that they ignore their pain and go on licking, not realizing that they’re drinking their own blood . . .

The truth is, this story isn’t true (Google it if you don’t believe me), but there’s a lot of truth in it — at least in parallel. I am thinking particularly of the drought in California. Continue reading

the truth behind travel

While on my trip a dear friend from high school posted this photo on my facebook page:

fernweh3“I think you’ve been satisfying this need for a couple of weeks now,” he said.

And I wondered: Was it true?

I’ve been a seeker all my life. From the time I was ten, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license. Six more years! How would I make it? In high school, my Catholic boyfriend challenged me to examine my Protestant beliefs, and when it came time for college, I chose a school 3,000 miles from home — Southern Adventist University in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At Southern, I uncovered a whole new world, one in which umbrellas were a necessity year-round (a strange phenomenon for a California girl) and the correct way to address a group of friends was not “Hey, guys,” but “Ya’ll”! It was the start of what has made me me and a part of what eased my transition to life in Asia  — I already knew about this cicada and humidity thing!

But, I guess my question is: What is travel? And why is it — is it? — important? Continue reading