The number of elementary and middle schools in the nation offering world languages declined from 1996 to 2007, but an increasing number of Arizona schools are providing language instruction in the early grades primarily because the ability to communicate in another language can lead to higher wages in the global economy.
While English continues to be the dominant language of world trade and diplomacy, there is emerging consensus among leaders in many fields that speaking English exclusively does not meet America’s needs in a shrinking world, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Sydney Mattson is a Queen Creek High School student who learned Spanish in an immersion program in Oregon. Each week, she tutors native Spanish speakers in the district’s Adult and Migrant Education Program by helping them with their English reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.
“I can teach them the roots (of the words) and it makes it a lot easier (for them),” Mattson said.
After graduating in May, Mattson plans to major in Spanish at Arizona State University and use her skills as a medical translator.
“First of all, I think learning a foreign language exposes you to people you might not usually meet, because there’s a language barrier,” Mattson said. “It also opens the door for a lot of career opportunities that you might not be able to have if you weren’t bilingual.”
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Early learning is critical
Learning another language at an early age provides several educational, cognitive and professional advantages that are especially pronounced if the language is begun at the elementary level, according to educators and language experts.
Research shows that the ability to acquire another language declines as one gets older, making learning languages at a young age all the more important, said Cristina Ladas, world language coordinator for Cave Creek Unified School District.
“One of the brain’s primary tasks at that age is to acquire a language for survival, and so these neural networks in a young brain are just wide open sponges, waiting to absorb what’s around them,” Ladas said. “That ability to just naturally absorb language, it starts to get pruned away as you get a little bit older, and once you go through your adolescent years.”
After students reach puberty, it becomes much more difficult to learn to speak a language without an accent, said Patricia Sandoval-Taylor, director of language acquisition at Tucson Unified School District.
“The research is clear that you’ll sound like a native speaker of the language the earlier that you learn that language,” Sandoval-Taylor said.
Language skills impact on earnings
College graduates who are native English speakers, but speak a second language earn higher wages, with an estimated 1.5 percent increase for Spanish-speakers, 2.3 percent for those fluent in French and 3.8 percent for German-speakers, according to a 2002 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
Americans who are fluent in languages the U.S. Department of State has cited as critical – Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Russian, Arabic and Hindi – can earn more and often find their language skills are an enormous asset in certain fields.
“Our school district strategically picked Mandarin Chinese as the immersion language, because the U.S. government classified Chinese as a really critical language,” said Lucy Lin, a kindergarten teacher in the Chinese Immersion Program at Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Tucson’s Catalina Foothills School District. “There is a great need for employees who can understand, who can use the language, with enough expertise to serve in diplomatic and military and cultural missions around the world.”
Tucson Unified offers instruction in Arabic, Korean, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language, as well as Spanish, French and German, and is the only public school district in Arizona to offer Arabic, according to a story from NBC News 4 KVOA Tucson. Mandarin, Korean and Arabic, with non-Latin alphabets, can be some of the most difficult for English speakers to learn.
“Knowing a language brings down many barriers in terms of communication, and understanding,” Sandoval-Taylor said. “It’s something that will go on transcripts, it will go on their high school diploma, and it’s something that again, a person trying to hire an individual will look at as an asset.”
When parents ask Ladas about enrolling their children in the immersion track at Cave Creek Unified, she asks them a simple question.
“If there are two people that are finalists for a job position, and one of those two people are fluent or proficient in another language, who do you think is going to get the offer?” Ladas said.
“A company would probably hire someone who has multiple languages, especially if they know the background of people’s brains that are bilingual, and how they approach problems, and how they tend to have more empathy, and how they have stronger critical thinking skills,” Ladas said.
“The Spanish Immersion program provides students (our son) with phenomenal instruction and opportunities. His participation in this program has developed an understanding of the world beyond America. Awareness of different cultures broadens his view of the world beyond our community,” said Cara Herkamp, parent of a seventh-grade Spanish Immersion student at Sonoran Trails Middle School in Cave Creek Unified School District.
“His language skills have not only built his confidence, but also open up many more paths for his future life and career. We so appreciate the future afforded to him enriched with many more global opportunities,” Herkamp said. “Personally, in retrospect, I am jealous I did not have language immersion programs available to me as I went through school.”
“We chose Desert Willow Elementary School and the Spanish Immersion program because we knew the best way to make our children global citizens was through the gift of a second language,” said Kristin Maggio, parent of two Spanish Immersion students at the school in the Cave Creek school district. “In the future, our children will have a competitive edge and a better ability to enjoy the world around them.”
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Language immersion and culture
Instead of taking classes that teach the language itself, students in language immersion programs are taught core subjects in the second language.
Students in the Tucson district’s program spend half the day learning in English and the other half learning in Mandarin, depending on what level program they are in, Lin said. For example, a first grader in the program would have science, health, math and Chinese literacy and culture taught in Mandarin Chinese, while English and social studies would be taught in English.
“It might seem difficult at first because it is very new to both the children and the parents, but as time goes by, the children are able to pick up the language very quickly, and they are also able to learn content through the language,” Lin said. “So I have no doubt they can do just as good a job, or even better of a job, than their traditional peers.”
A key component of language classes is cultural education, said Karin Eberhard, district relations coordinator at Flagstaff Unified School District. The district’s Puente de Hózhó program offers K-12 immersion in Spanish and Navajo (Diné).
“Not only are you immersed in the language, but you have to understand the context as well,” Eberhard said. “We absolutely feel that it is beneficial to students as they graduate and go into the workforce . . . It gives them a different, more global understanding”
Through Puente de Hózhó’s Navajo (Diné) immersion program, students speak to Navajo Nation elders who may not speak as much English, and learn more about the language’s important role during World War II.
“Up here it’s very important, and if (students) plan to work on the reservation, it’s extremely helpful,” Eberhard said. “The Navajo Nation is huge, and so for students who go to school here in Flagstaff, to be able to speak that language, and work on the reservation is a big deal.”
A life-long skill
In Cave Creek Unified, students can take French, Spanish, Mandarin from elementary through middle school and in high school where they can take Advanced Placement classes and have the opportunity to earn college credit.
Cave Creek’s language classes are based on the proficiency guidelines developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Those guidelines offer a “proficiency scale” that the district uses to determine where they want students to be at the end of a particular year.
“We teach the scale to the students, and that they know, they learn how to recognize where they are, and what they need to do to get to the next level,” Ladas said. “You can always make your language a little bit better, and move a little bit higher on that scale, so we kind of approach it as this is a long-term commitment, and something that you can do for the rest of your life.”