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Schools should invest in languages
Know how to use computer is the single most common job requirement in Northeastern Oregon, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Twenty years ago, a chainsaw was a more useful technology than a computer.
How times have changed.
So has our educational system, responding to the need for students to be able to interface with computers by means of a keyboard. Old IBM Selectric and Underwood manual typewriters have no place in our schools now; PCs and Macs rightly rule the roost.
Keyboarding has proven to be a near universal skill that must be taught in schools.
We are behind the curve, however, in applying the same shift to the instruction of foreign languages.
Oregon took another step back this week by further delaying a requirement that students complete two years of a foreign language before graduating from high school.
We should take the time, however, to re-evaluate how foreign languages are taught in our schools.
Two years at the high school level is not the most effective way to create a citizenry proficient in a second or even third language.
Students are more likely to be able to speak a language fluently if they encounter language classes beginning in elementary school, when even English is something of a foreign language to native speakers.
And fluency in multiple languages should be a cultural goal. Japanese and German children arent born smarter than our own. They simply encounter a system better geared towards their education.
English-only promoters will snarl at this notion, arguing that the 30 million and growing Spanish speakers in the U.S. should learn English.
But it isnt only for our domestic needs that we should desire a multilingual citizenry.
The North American Free Trade Agreement puts us in a new trading position with Mexico and Canada, a bilingual nation where French is important in business and culture.
Oregons position in world trade demands even further diversification. Japan has long been a key trading partner; China is rising on the horizon as an even vaster market.
Our trade deficit with both will only grow, however, if we cannot penetrate their language to market products and cut deals with their politicians and commercial leaders.
Restructuring how we teach foreign languages will be an investment in our state and nations future, just as large tech companies are pushing for further investment at our state universities in computer science programs.
The shift can begin there: teacher candidates in all disciplines shouldnt be allowed to either enter or graduate teaching school without displaying proficiency in a foreign language. That requirement could alternately be enforced at the state licensing level.
Then the school districts should raise the bar for hiring and expect foreign language skills to be part of the packages brought to the district by all new hires.
A kindergarten teacher should be able to teach her class basic numerals and the alphabet in English and in Spanish, at the very least.
And as students pass into the upper grades and learn about the exploration of North America, Spanish and French journal passages from explorers and trappers could be incorporated into the classroom in the native tongue.
It would be nothing short of a pedagogical revolution.
However, if we are to expect more of our kids and our nation, we must expect more of our teachers.