Should American children learn foreign languages?

You know Barack’s going to take some serious heat for this. Read the video comments.

It’s no secret that the nativists in this country aren’t too intelligent. If they had a few more functioning brain cells, they’d realize that expanding your mind’s capacity with additional mental challenges (such as learning a foreign language) when it’s still developing is a good idea. Maybe they have only a few brain cells that work and are worried about burning them out. Maybe they’re worrying that the American Idol kids are going to start belting out Spanish canciones and they won’t be able to sing along. Maybe they worry that the local Walmart will start listing prices in Spanish pesos, rendering their English dollars worthless.

The fact is that most of the developed world does speak some basic English. But knowing the language of our trading partners and neighbors only gives you advantages and opens up opportunities. Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian – all of these make sense to learn in a practical sense. Euro-nostalgics who want their children to learn French or German aren’t harming their children, even if these languages don’t have the same practical value.

If you need to see a positive example at work, look at Scandinavia. Pretty much everyone there is fully bilingual, in their native language and English (and many are multilingual). And it’s one of the most economically productive areas of the world. I remember only one person on my trip to Copenhagen that didn’t speak English. He was a trash collector.

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  1. As a native English speaker and linguist I can truly see both sides of the argument here. There are few places in the world that I have traveled to where English has been unrecognised, and many places where, not knowing the local dialect, I have been gratefully been able to get by only because of locals having some knowledge of English. That said, I have also benefitted hugely from my knowledge of French and Spanish, in terms or travel opportunities, career opportunities, and general confidence. I feel that herein lies the benefit of learning a language which is so often overlooked. It is the fact that, whilst, as an English speaker, it may not be vital to know a second language, to discount other languages can inadvertently lead to one discounting the culture, peoples, and traditions of that language. Exposure to a language has an impact far more profound than knowing how to order a drink in a foreign country, it teaches about us to different ways of life, ideals other than our own and and give us a greater perspective on our place in the world. This is the most valuable aspect of learning a language and should not be forgotten in the current debate.

    Comment by Zoey — July 10, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  2. Excellent point, Zoey. You’re not going to have a deep, meaningful exchange with someone if all you can manage is “Hello”, “What is your name?” and “Do you like ice cream?”. I had deeper, more life-changing conversations in those countries where I actually learned the language to the point of fluency.

    Comment by JM — July 10, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  3. “Euro-nostalgics who want their children to learn French or German aren’t harming their children, even if these languages don’t have the same practical value.” Le Francais? Inutile? Deutsch auch? Since when? hrrrmmm…. We’ll see about that.

    Comment by Keayn — October 14, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

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