Curriculum Opinion

Why Languages Can Make Us Smarter, Safer, and Better Looking

By Anthony Jackson — April 12, 2012 3 min read
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This week more than 1,100 Chinese language teachers are gathering in Washington, DC for the annual National Chinese Language Conference. I’ve asked Chris Livaccari to share the spirit of the event.

by Chris Livaccari

In the language education business, there are basically two kinds of arguments in support of language programs. The first is a national security or competitiveness one that emphasizes the importance of languages for intelligence gathering, military and economic competition, and generally appeals to political and business leaders—i.e., “this can make our nation stronger” arguments. The second is a more nuanced one about the cognitive and cultural benefits of language learning, and one that plays well with people in education, the arts, academia, and many parents—i.e., “this can make my kid smarter” arguments.

It is interesting that both of these motivations for language learning have recently received prominent media attention. A March 17, 2012 New York Times article on “Why Bilinguals are Smarter” touts the advantages of bilinguals over monolinguals at every stage of life, from infancy to old age. A Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report on “U.S. Education Reform and National Security” published around the same time to much media fanfare proposes that “if all Americans grew up proficient in at least one language in addition to English, and if instruction about other countries’ histories and cultures were built into the standard K-12 curriculum, young people would develop better understandings of world cultures and be better equipped to converse, collaborate, and compete with peers worldwide.” This “collaborate/compete” mantra has become probably the single most used argument for multilingualism and global competence in education.

This is all music to the ears of language educators, as I think we all like to imagine a world in which learning more languages makes us smarter and happier, and builds a stronger, more secure nation. Both the New York Times and CFR pieces suggest that there is growing acknowledgement of the benefits of language learning and more support for schools offering a wide range of high-quality language options for students. Both also make reference to the benefits of starting language study at an early age, and of the critical link between language learning and the development of other cognitive and academic skill sets.

One of the great test cases for the benefits of both early language learning and the connections between language and other areas is the growing interest in language immersion programs, most of which begin in the early grades. These are programs in which students both learn a new language and take a portion of their content area courses in that language. There are different models of immersion, such as 80-20 or 50-50—that is to say, students spend 80% of their school day in a new language (learning science, math, and social studies in French, for example) and 20% of their school day in their native language (language arts and music classes in English, for example), or 50% of the day in each language, etc. But whatever the model, these immersion programs get one thing obviously right: they start early and give students the best chance of building toward advanced language proficiency.

Most Americans probably start learning a foreign language in middle or high school, and perhaps study for two or three years without developing much proficiency because the programs in which they study are not robust enough and don’t start early enough to give them that opportunity. So whether you are more on the “collaborate” side of the house or more on the “compete” side, it’s clear that early language learning should be a national priority and one that can make our young people both smarter and safer.

Beyond language proficiency, it is important that students have the opportunity to develop a broader skill set that teaches them how to identify and analyze patterns in language and culture, and how to apply an understanding of those patterns to communicating with a wide variety of audiences. While this enhanced ability to communicate, collaborate, and connect across linguistic, cultural, and national borders may not actually improve our chances of dating a supermodel, it will make us look a lot better to the rest of the world. It also makes the prospect of America remaining a nation that can lead and innovative look a lot better too!

Asia Society has published a new book, Chinese Language Learning in the Early Years. It’s a free guide to resources and best practices for Mandarin immersion.

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