Every student in Pennsylvania should have the chance to learn foreign languages

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Myra Forest

Underfunded school districts are unable to offer middle school foreign language courses to their students. Two of these districts are Pottstown and Norristown, both located in Montgomery County, the second wealthiest county in the state of Pennsylvania.

What difference does the absence of a foreign language offer at college make? We live in America and speak English. Why do we need to learn other languages? And if we teach them, why not just in high school?

A child’s brain is most likely to learn from birth to age five. This is when the brain is most flexible and responsive, and the plasticity of the brain allows children to learn very quickly. Language skills are easily acquired at these early ages and become more difficult to acquire in older children, especially when they are in high school or beyond. Children learn to speak and learn words more easily during this time in their lives.

Children living in bilingual homes are able to learn more than one language and have the ability to discern which language goes with which person. A language study was published in Time Magazine that referenced a young child raised in a home with two parents and two sets of grandparents. Four languages ​​were spoken in this house. The baby grew up hearing and learning all four languages, and spoke the right language to the right person. The mind of a young child is indeed a wonderful thing if cultivated properly.

The United States of America, as a whole, lags behind in foreign language education. The foreign language should start in our elementary schools, not in our middle and high schools. Many schools in foreign countries regularly teach English as a second language starting with very young children through high school. French Canadian students learn English; some Mexican schools teach English to children and most European countries teach English from very young children. The United States, on the other hand, does not take advantage of the ease with which young children acquire language. Underfunded schools cannot offer a foreign language until high school and offer few language choices to choose from.

Being bilingual provides many benefits to students in a myriad of ways. In a 2012 article in Cerebrum magazine, it was stated that bilingual students develop understanding of language structure both verbally and in writing, helping them develop the tools to read faster than their monolingual peers. A 2014 study from the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that bilingual children have a greater range of vocabulary. Bilingual students generally have a stronger working memory to hold new information in place and a longer attention span. Bilingual students also possess the self-discipline and perseverance to study and learn complex subjects more than their monolingual counterparts.

Our world is getting smaller every day with the advent of technologies that can connect us to anyone, anywhere. Bilingual people are in demand for many jobs because of our connections around the world. People travel far more than they ever have before, both for pleasure and for work, and knowing another language is hugely beneficial for both scenarios.

Our country is becoming more and more culturally diverse. Having bilingual employees in our hospitals, for example, is extremely important to meet the needs of patients and their families. Bilingual employees in airports, hotels, K-12 schools, colleges, and daycare centers are just a few examples of where being bilingual could go a long way in breaking down language barriers.

This brings us back to the starting point: middle school students in all schools in Pennsylvania should have access to a foreign language. School boards should not have to choose which subjects to cut from the curriculum that are essential to the education of our students simply to balance school district budgets. This is just one more example of how underfunding Pennsylvania public schools sets students up for failure.

Myra Forrest is a lifelong educator and former school principal. This is the first in a series of opinions representing the role of advocacy for equitable school funding by the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation.

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