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Bridging the foreign-language gap
Special to The Times
Over the years, education and economic experts have warned that the U.S. is in danger of losing its status as the world's economic leader. They accurately note that most American public schools aren't adequately equipping students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in an increasingly competitive and demanding world.
This scenario should worry all of us. Washington state leaders have responded to this challenge by implementing education-reform measures highlighted by the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Even if the WASL — with its emphasis on reading, math and science — works as well as proponents hope, it alone won't prepare many students for the demands facing them in the future.
We need to place greater emphasis on foreign-language instruction in our schools, starting at the elementary level. We need to make foreign language as high a priority as reading, math and science.
Most Washington K-12 students don't have the chance to study any language other than English until they are in middle school or high school. In fact, foreign language isn't even a state graduation requirement (some colleges and universities use it as an entrance requirement).
Washington, like the rest of the U.S., is far behind other countries when it comes to language skills. This language gap is coming back to haunt us. Thanks to globalization, students from Washington and the rest of America won't be competing just against each other for future jobs; they'll compete against others from around the world.
Consider this: More than 200 million children in China are studying English, a compulsory subject for all Chinese primary-school students. By comparison, only about 24,000 out of roughly 54 million elementary- and secondary-school students in the U.S. are studying Chinese.
Recognizing the foreign-language problem, the Bush administration this year introduced the National Security Language Initiative to help improve American competitiveness. The initiative aims to:
• Increase the number of Americans mastering critical-need languages, starting at a young age;
• Increase the number of advanced-level speakers of foreign languages, with an emphasis on critical-need languages;
• Increase the number of teachers of critical-need languages and resources for them.
This language initiative is welcome news. But our Washington shouldn't wait for the other Washington to act. Learning a second or even a third language can open doors — academically, economically and culturally — for students.
Studies have shown that kids learning a foreign language tend to demonstrate greater cognitive development, creativity and divergent thinking than monolingual children. They tend to score higher on verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests. Studies also show that learning another language enhances students' academic skills by increasing their abilities in reading, writing and math.
Anyone in the work force who wants to be competitive in the future will have an edge by speaking a second language. Speaking a second language will impact not only those people whose jobs are linked to the global economy, it will even affect local jobs. Nowadays, many construction workers in the Puget Sound region speak Spanish. If two people apply for a site-manager job with a construction firm and one of the applicants can speak Spanish, that applicant will have the edge in getting hired. This scenario could also impact many lower-paying jobs, from tellers to waitresses.
Learning a foreign language helps kids recognize and understand a world outside their communities. It introduces them to the notion of a different way of thinking and living.
Earlier this year, I introduced a bill requiring Washington school districts to provide sequential Chinese- and Spanish-language programs starting in the elementary level. Although the bill didn't pass, we've finally begun a long-overdue discussion about the need for more foreign language classes in our schools.
Why Chinese and Spanish? China is fast becoming an economic superpower. The recent visit to Seattle by China's President Hu Jintao serves as a clear reminder of the potential economic challenges and opportunities that China poses for Washington. It's crucial that our work force include enough Chinese speakers so we're ready.
Many Washington students already learn Spanish, but not until middle school. Learning it sooner will make them more fluent. In addition, it's important for our state to capitalize on potential trade opportunities in Spanish-speaking parts of Central and South America.
As Gov. Christine Gregoire recently noted, Washington truly operates like a small nation in this global economy. We indeed should capitalize on Washington's competitive advantage in the global marketplace. That's why our governor and our Legislature must make foreign-language instruction a high priority for our public schools — before it's too late.
Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, serves the 31st Legislative District. She also is the founder of La Escuela de Esperanza (School of Hope), which provides teachers, educational material and humanitarian relief for Honduran children.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company