April 20, 2001

Commentary

Curing American Monolingualism

By Domenico Maceri

What do you call a person who speaks three languages?

-Trilingual

And a person who speaks two languages?

-Bilingual

And a person who speaks only one language?

-American.

Americans may not be aware of their insularity, but there are signs of change. The John Stanford International School in the Seattle School District has become the most popular school in the area. Unlike other schools, John Stanford teaches not one language but two. Kindergartners and first-graders spend half the day being taught in English and the other half in Spanish. The school has become so popular that a second one will be opened soon.

The advantages of the kind of bilingualism fostered at the Stanford school are obvious and will become a definite asset in an ever-shrinking world.

Studying Spanish (or some other language) will make students better learners of all their subjects while they are still in school. Bilingual/bicultural kids have many advantages over monolingual ones because they possess what researchers call a "plasticity" of the brain. This trait becomes apparent when they try to learn a third language. It's the first foreign language that is hardest to learn. But it's not just language learning that becomes easier. Bilingual/bicultural individuals realize that just as there are two ways to say the same thing, there are two ways to learn new things or solve problems.

Bilingual children develop a mental agility and flexibility about learning that monolinguals lack. This flexibility is vital in today's world, where employees are frequently asked to acquire new skills in order to stay abreast of technological changes.

Standardized tests confirm the intellectual ability of students educated in two languages. A fourteen-year study by researchers at George Mason University found that students in dual-language school did better than students in other types of bilingual education programs and also outperformed native English-speakers in English-only schools.

Although English and Spanish bilingualism may be easiest to achieve and most desirable, the practical and intellectual benefits of bilingualism may be reached with another language. French, Japanese, or some other crucial language could easily take the place of Spanish in some parts of the country. This second language should become part of the curriculum for the long-haul, for in order to gain fluency, students need to study it for about five or six years, according to George Mason University researchers.

Other countries understand very well the importance of languages. With an economy aimed primarily at exporting, the Japanese firmly believe that in order to sell their products they have to know the customers-and that means the customers' language. In Japan, English is a basic subject from the earliest grades on. The Japanese know that learning languages requires a long time and they give their students all the time it takes.

The US has a long way to go before it can match other countries interest in languages, but some encouraging signs are beginning to occur. John Stanford International School is only one of the 261 "dual language" schools available in the United States, in which school subjects are taught in both English and Spanish, or some other second language. These schools differ from the bilingual education programs aimed at kids know don't know English. The goal of dual language programs is for all students to learn English as well as another language. Typical students in these schools are upper middle class pupils.

The dual-language method was first used in a public school in 1963 and has spread from the Miami suburb of Coral Gables to other schools in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. Most are elementary schools that teach in Spanish and English, and some receive federal funding. Nine are in the Washington D. C. metropolitan area.

The number of dual-language schools has already been rising rapidly, increasing by about two-thirds since 1992. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called on the nation to nearly quadruple the number to 1,000 within five years.
In today's world, events in Iraq can have dramatic effects in California. A slide in Asian stock markets can trigger one in New York. To understand these events and be able to influence them we need linguistic and cultural knowledge that goes beyond English. To prepare our children for a world which continues to get smaller and smaller we need to give them all the necessary tools including the knowledge of a second language. We will cease to be a major power if our children cannot communicate with the rest of the world.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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