April 18, 2010
By Catherine Porter
Many Americans have come to believe, consciously or not, that it's just too hard to learn a second language. We typically wait until early adolescence to introduce schoolchildren to their first foreign language. We start with small doses and don't usually offer, let alone require, extended sequences. Our teachers have often had a late start themselves and don't always have much opportunity outside the classroom to extend their own language skills. Articulation between high-school and college foreign-language programs is haphazard at best. College students often perceive language requirements as obstacles to be avoided or impositions to be endured.
Thus, generation after generation, our society produces large numbers of adult citizens who have never tried to learn another language or who see themselves as having tried and failed. Is it any wonder that as a society we think it's not worth the effort and expense to make foreign-language study an essential component of the public-school curriculum?
But the result is a devastating waste of potential. Researchers in a wide range of fields increasingly attest to the benefits of bilingualism. Students who have had an early start in a long-sequence foreign-language program consistently display enhanced cognitive abilities relative to their monolingual peers—including pattern recognition, problem solving, divergent thinking, flexibility, and creativity. After the first three or four years of second-language instruction, those students perform better on standardized tests, not only in verbal skills (in both languages) but also in mathematics. They demonstrate enhanced development in metalinguistic and critical thinking: They can compare and contrast languages, analyze the way language functions in different contexts, and appreciate the way it can be used for special purposes, like advertising, political propaganda, fiction, or poetry. In short, they have a decided edge in the higher-order thinking skills that will serve them well as college students and citizens.
What accounts for such remarkable benefits? Does foreign-language study itself have an impact on brain physiology? While there is still a lot we don't know, intriguing clues are emerging. Experiments have shown, for example, that foreign-language study increases brain density in the left inferior parietal cortex. Research also suggests that bilingual people process languages differently than monolingual people do. They may take fuller advantage of the neural structures involved in cognitive processing. They appear to have a greater ability to shut out distractions and focus on the task at hand. Demands that the language-learning process makes on the brain, like other demands that involve encountering the unexpected, make the brain more flexible and incite it to discover new patterns—and thus to create and maintain more circuits.
The effort involved in learning and controlling more than one language may even "train the brain" in a way that slows down the losses that so often come with aging. Indeed, one recent Canadian report indicates that dementia may be delayed by as much as four years in bilingual adults who use both languages regularly. Virtually all "brain fitness" experts include foreign-language study among the activities that may help delay the onset of dementia.
Although it is never too late to begin or resume foreign-language study, in principle adults can choose whether or not to pursue it, while the children in our society must depend on us—on school boards, state legislatures, federal agencies, educational organizations—to create contexts in which foreign-language learning can and will occur. Given the enhanced cognitive capacities attributable to bilingualism, we should do whatever it takes to make those advantages available to all children, especially now when the perception is growing that Americans are being outperformed in the international arena on several measures of educational attainment and are at risk of losing a crucial competitive advantage. On the worldwide scale, we are decidedly lagging behind in foreign-language education: According to a survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics published in 2000, presecondary foreign-language study was offered in all of the 19 countries responding and required in 15 of them.
It is true that English has become a lingua franca in many parts of the world and may suffice for superficial transactions in touristic situations. But English is not enough for exchanges in diplomatic, military, professional, or commercial contexts where matters of consequence are at stake. Whether English-only speakers are dealing with counterparts who speak their language well or working through interpreters, they are always at a disadvantage. They risk violating social taboos, tend to miss subtle verbal and nonverbal cues, and cannot follow side conversations. In general, they are far less equipped than their bilingual or multilingual interlocutors to put themselves in others' places or to figure out where others are "coming from," what they are "getting at," or even trying to "get away with." In many circumstances, the cultural knowledge and understanding that comes with mastery of a second language is a prerequisite for being taken seriously.
In an op-ed piece in The New York Times last fall, Thomas L. Friedman cited a businessman, Todd Martin, who said that "our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker's global competitiveness." Friedman went on to say that schools need to send forth students who not only have adequate skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but who also demonstrate creative problem-solving abilities. Every child whose ability to think critically and creatively is increased by the boost in cerebral capacity from sustained foreign-language study is a future adult who may bring new perspectives to the daunting problems facing our globalized world—climate change and economic stability being just two examples. Producing a truly multilingual citizenry would give us a vast pool of people who can function in at least two languages and learn others quickly. With the enhanced intercultural awareness that comes with second-language acquisition, Americans could interact with more sensitivity and insight in multicultural contexts.
Studies suggest that the ideal "window" for introducing a second language extends from pre-kindergarten through third grade, partly because of the well-known plasticity of young brains but also because, as with a first language, extended exposure is needed for full mastery. Yet according to a report from the Center for Applied Linguistics, the number of elementary schools in the United States that offer any foreign-language study decreased from 31 percent to 25 percent between 1997 and 2008. The report's executive summary concluded: "When legislators, administrators, and other education policy makers recognize the need to incorporate foreign languages into the core curriculum, the necessary funding and other resources will follow."
Professors of modern languages, including English, should be among the first to recognize that need and embrace the challenge it entails. Imagine a context—one we could create in less than a generation—in which most entering college students arrive with 12 or 13 years of sustained, serious foreign-language study behind them. Instructors of foreign literature and languages would find students prepared for advanced work if they chose to go on in the same language or efficient and motivated learners if they chose to start a new one. English literature and composition instructors would find that their students had a comparative grasp of the structures of the English language, an informed appreciation of its capabilities and limitations, and an approach to their subjects nourished by prior experience with literary texts from a different tradition. All instructors would find their students experienced in thinking and talking about language and culture as such, and accustomed to stepping outside their own systems to compare and contrast as well as perform other tasks that we commonly associate with critical thinking.
Experience with more than one language reinforces the insight that language is a vehicle of expression and representation deployed by speakers and writers as they construct their own worlds. Each language does the job differently, puts into play its own approach to filtering perceived realities and its own tools for individual expression in a language-structured relation to those realities. To experience the contrast of differing languages and their distinct expressive resources is to learn valuable lessons in humility, tolerance, and sensitivity to other peoples and cultures.
Bilingual people use multiple lenses to view the world; their horizons are widened and their lives enriched by the ability to embrace difference and find enjoyment in the play within, between, and around languages that stepping outside one's mother tongue allows. Few if any intellectual achievements open more doors in the mind, in the heart, and in the world than learning to understand and speak another language. And few produce a more profound or lasting satisfaction—even in the blunders and misunderstandings that arise in the learning process and regularly thereafter. Doris Sommer argues in Bilingual Aesthetics (Duke University Press, 2004) that "living in two or more competing languages troubles the expectation that communication should be easy, and it upsets the desired coherence of romantic nationalism and ethnic essentialism. This can be a good thing." For native speakers of English in the United States, that good thing too often remains the privilege of an elite.
It is time for us to embrace the mandate put forward in the Modern Language Association's report to the Teagle Foundation on the undergraduate major in language and literature. That report asserts decisively that "multilingualism and multiculturalism have become a necessity for most world citizens" and that "all students who major in our departments should know English and at least one foreign language." We should work individually and collectively, locally and nationally, to have foreign-language study included as a core subject in elementary schools throughout the country. We need to make our voices heard in a sustained and vigorous effort to persuade all stakeholders in the American educational enterprise that English, while essential, is simply not enough.