What Should We Be Learning In High School?

For many high school students in the United States (as well as other countries), foreign language education is a topic that has mixed responses when brought up. Many of my classmates from high school reviled it as a waste of their time, saying that “everyone speaks English anyway”. Others enjoyed it, like myself, and valued it highly as an important aspect of my education. In the United States, the prevailing languages taught in high schools are Spanish, French, and more recently, Mandarin Chinese.

The general premise of foreign language education is that it facilitates communication between people who otherwise might not be able to, as well as to improve relations between different countries.  There is a kind of cultural bias in English speaking countries where people from the United States and other English-speaking countries can ask people in other countries whether they speak English before attempting to speak in the native language of that country. It’s a poor habit that many Americans fall into, since our foreign language education is often subpar or non-extensive in its covering of cultural nuances.

At New York University, many of the programs require students to complete a foreign language requirement, which can range from completing only the elementary series to having to complete the entire series from elementary through advanced. Universities often provide a fairly wide variety of languages compared to high schools, but Spanish and French predominate as the biggest programs in many schools. NYU, specifically, offers languages including Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Krèyol, and even Quechua!

Now what I’m going to discuss is what languages we really should be teaching in our high schools, since I believe that our current selection is falling out of practical usage. Spanish is still one of the most useful language since many Hispanic immigrants reside in the United States, and Mandarin Chinese has similar applications in Chinese communities around the country. French is where it gets tricky. Very few people in the United States actually speak French in comparison to Spanish and Chinese, and even if Canada is on the border, the demographics of United States do not make French particularly applicable. Below are the top three languages that I think need to be replace French or otherwise be added to the foreign language curriculum of United States high schools:

Arabic

Arabic, as a lingua franca of the Middle East, is an incredibly useful language due to its applications in refugee and immigrant communities around the world. The Middle Eastern communities will benefit immensely from the acceptance and tolerance for their heritages and beliefs if their language is taught in schools. However, as you may or may not know, Arabic comes in several regional varieties that are not entirely mutually intelligible, including Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Saudi Arabian. There is a standardized variety, known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based off of the Arabic of the Qur’an, known as Classical Arabic. We cannot possibly accommodate the many varieties of Arabic, so it is probably best to teach MSA in high schools, as is done in many universities.

Only at advanced levels can students consider specializing in a particular variety of Arabic, but each has its own merits. Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely understood regional varieties, given much of popular Arabic-language media is in Egyptian Arabic, whereas Levantine Arabic has applications in diplomatic relations and translation/interpretation in the Levant, which includes areas such as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, or Syria (Note: these areas do have their regional variations, but Levantine Arabic does cover all of them to an extent).

Hindi-Urdu

While many South Asians do speak English fairly well (if not fluently), Hindi-Urdu is a valuable language to implement in school systems. South Asian communities have a diverse set of languages spoken among them, and Hindi-Urdu does, to an extent, unite them through a common language. Unlike Hispanic and Chinese communities, South Asian communities are not afforded the privilege of having their language being mainstream, which contributes to dynamics of assimilation. Hindi-Urdu is a culturally rich language with a strong tradition of music, poetry, and literature. Part of the barriers to understanding South Asian communities is due to the alienation of their languages, culture, and traditions.

You may think that this is simply to accommodate the South Asian communities in the United States, but the fact is that South Asian Americans exist. Many of us are divided from our heritages due to the lack of ability to connect to it through our languages, and having the language of Bollywood to connect us is a way of strengthening our ties. Yes, we do have our own languages, but we have our own ways (and sometimes not) to connect with those heritages. Hindi-Urdu is one of the few ways that Pakistani and Indian Americans can find something in common in the way of cultural bonds. Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans have their own languages as well, and it is important to recognize that, and in communities with large populations of Bengalis and Sri Lankans, they do find their own ways to promote their languages (as I’ve personally seen in New York City). For the purpose of practicality, I support Hindi-Urdu as a language to be taught in high schools, due to its extensive cultural potential.

Russian

Russian is a somewhat practical language to learn, though this is more true on the East Coast with large populations of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. Russian, as a diplomatic language, does have some uses as well, considering that it is a lingua franca in many Eastern European countries. Since I’m not as familiar with Russian communities or the scope of the language, I admit there’s not much else I’m able to say.

The over-arching point of this post is to express that certain languages need to be promoted more than others in this changing world. The prestige of French and Spanish is not a valid excuse to neglect the communities of other nations as well as expand diplomatic and cultural relations with them.

 

Why America Isn’t As Multicultural As You Think (And What We Can Do About It)

It is not rarely that I hear the glories of America’s multicultural and multiethnic history, and that it has always been accepting of immigrants and creates a place for mutual understanding. While it’s certainly true that cultural pluralism was effectively born in the United States, modern-day America is not as integrated as you would be lead to believe.

The majority of the immigrant population lives on the coasts, where bigger cities and more job opportunities exist for newcomers to the country. While there is certainly little you can do about the lower numbers of immigrants elsewhere, it’s not an excuse for lacking in cultural education. We live in the Information Age, where literally thousands upon thousands of articles, e-books, and websites are at your disposal to learn about essentially anything.

America has always had what is called “a cult of ignorance,” as described by Professor Traphagan in an article by the Huffington Post (linked here). Media and education treat other nations as exotic, different, and most of all, implicitly inferior. We are taught that the United States is successful and powerful because it allows its citizens certain rights and liberties that other countries do not. This creates not only a national superiority complex, but also brushes to the side all the nations that immigrants come from. By implying that other nations are lower than ours is, we cultivate a culture of anti-foreign beliefs.

To remedy the ills of anti-immigrant sentiment and cultural ignorance, I think that it is necessary to implement foreign language education at an age much earlier than middle school. Beginning at least in second or third grade, children become increasingly cognizant of the fact there are other races of people, different lifestyles, and of course, that there are other languages. In middle school, children, due to the vast amount of information on the Internet and the prevalence of technology, have formed many of their own opinions, habits, and even personal beliefs regarding other people. While children are young, we ought to be instilling in them the idea that the world is a big place, where people are different, and one of the best ways to do so is teaching them foreign languages.

Therefore, I propose multilingual education beginning in third grade. In a hypothetical model, children would select the language they want to learn (with some guidance from parents, of course), and learn it alongside other coursework. Recognizing that some parents might take issue with this program, foreign language would optional until high school, where it actually becomes a requirement for graduation. However, foreign language should eventually become a core subject, not an elective or minimal requirement. By engaging children in environments different from the ones they usually encounter, they can develop a broader perspective from which to view the world and their other learning.

Different languages have different ways of looking at things, evidenced in different expressions, untranslatable words, and the varying ways in which words are put together. It has been shown in several studies (some of which you can see here)that students with foreign language skills often perform noticeably higher on standardized testing, especially in the areas of writing and reading. In addition to teaching children more about the world in general, it would accelerate their learning, and also get America ahead academically.

Studies have shown that children who grow up in environments where they acquire a second language have significantly better cognitive abilities, have better problem-solving skills, and are generally much more receptive to new ideas (not necessarily ideological). Not only do children acquire another form of communication, but they also have a new medium of understanding of the world around them. It is better for children to develop their understanding of the world in two or more lenses, rather than acquiring the lens later on in life, where their views of the world are largely solidified and immutable. To make America truly multicultural, the next generation needs to know what that means, and the best way to do that is through exposure.

So that’s my piece for today. Leave some comments, if you have your own thoughts on this. Please share this post and other previous articles on other sites, such as Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr, so that more people can contribute to the discussion!