If you've found your way to my blog you probably have some sort of investment in language education. In my teaching career I've taught a wide variety of subjects: Science Pre-k to 3rd grade, 3rd grade, 5th grade, Middle School Spanish, and now for the past 6 years, Elementary Spanish. Although I've found value in every subject I've taught, it was not until I started teaching Elementary Spanish that I came to believe that a language class is one of the MOST important things we can teach our children, and one of the greatest gifts we can give to the world.
Why? There are many reasons a language is important, one of which is that learning a language teaches us how to connect with others. Even Google agrees:
"The Washington Post recently reported on a 2013 Google study of its hiring, firing, and promotion data since 1998. The study, called Project Oxygen, sought to identify key skills and behaviors in the company’s managers. Surprisingly, the data revealed that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top leaders and managers, STEM expertise comes in last. So, what came out on top? “The seven top characteristics of [managerial] success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” Strong technical skills are a must, particularly for engineers, designers, and so on. But as employees look beyond individual contributions and into management roles, people skills are paramount."
Speaking a second language in our global economy is more likely to get you a job (if employers compare to candidates who are equally qualified, and Candidate A speaks 1 language, and Candidate B speaks 3 languages; Candidate B is the more valuable acquisition for the company). However, aside from that important fact, learning a second language, especially at a younger age, helps you acquire soft skills that are a true gift to both the learner and society.
University of Oxford anthropologist Robert Dunbar was studying the size of social groups in primates, in relationship to brain size. He used calculations from his studies to predict the size of social groups humans maintained, based on their brain size, at roughly 150.
Upon consulting anthropological and historical records Dunbar found that there was evidence to support his number. The average group size among hunter-gatherer societies was around 148.8. Company size in armies was also close to 150; all the way from the Roman Emperor, to Spain in the 1500s, to modern day Soviet Union.
We are pre-programmed to see Us VS Them for survival. When we were living in hunter-gatherer groups knowing who you should share resources with, and who might steal your resources was key to survival. However, recent brain science has shown that when we point out the similarities between two groups of people, the Us vs Them mentality can fall away, and we start to see Us and Us. Immersing yourself in another language and culture helps us to understand other cultures, see the similarities between ourselves and our brothers and sisters across the planet, and appreciate our differences. In a world filled with strife and finite resources, understanding and caring towards others in one of the most valuable things we can teach.
In addition to helping create empathy towards others and helping us get a job. Being bi-lingual reshapes our brain!
Being bilingual means that we are able to understand speech in more than one language. This means our brains are always 'on' in both languages, and automatically switch between the two languages as necessary. Choosing which language to process information in increases control in the brain and helps those that have acquired a second language to learn to tune out superfluous information. This skill can benefit those with a second language in many tasks from studying to preparing for a job interview.
In addition, learning additional languages requires you to use different parts of your brain more often, and more consistently. Since the brain is like a muscle in that, the parts that you use become stronger, and the parts that we do not use become weaker, or are cut all together, using more parts of our brain over long periods of time lead to a more active brain and more grey and white matter!
These brain benefits can begin as young as 7 months old where when given a test with a disappearing puppet bilingual children did better than mono-lingual children. Bilingual 5 year olds given memory tests were faster and more accurate than monolingual children, and a report by the NEA on language education stated that :
"Students able to speak a second language have better listening skills, sharper memories, are more creative, are better at solving complex problems, and exhibit greater cognitive flexibility.
From elementary school to college, students of foreign languages score higher on standardized tests.
Results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) show that students who had studied another language for four or more years did better on both the verbal and math portions of the test."
Although recommendations have been to maintain one language for students with Autism, this is not based on research. Studies are not yet extensive, but what is available shows that the critical thinking and executive function (including self-control and mental flexibility) boosts that bilingual children get when learning their second language apply to the autistic community as well. In fact, bilingual children with autism's language skills are on par with monolingual children.
There are so many benefits to speaking a second language, and sadly, the United States is the only first world country in which students are not required to speak a second language. In our global economy I fear this will hurt our children's prospects as they step out into the world. Many think that language translation software will be able to replace speaking another language. However, there is currently no modern software that can keep up with the complex and changing nature of languages. When you think about the difference in slang words across the United States, someone from Michigan (like me) has trouble understanding everything I hear when I am in Alabama, let alone understanding everything I hear when I speak to friends from London. There are 20 different countries that speak Spanish alone. The regional differences in culture and language make actual knowledge of these things very hard to replace.
In addition, across the country, many districts are increasing the presence of technology in classrooms.
While learning a second language brings many brain benefits, increasing technology, especially at a young age, can lead to depression, anger and suicide.
In addition to decreasing our attention spans, it also impairs our ability to interact with others. Our brains are programmed to interact and hold relationships to other people, they even release special endorphins when we are around people we care about and make eye contact or our touched. This is missing when we stare at a screen, and leads to depression, and also an inability to interact with others in real life. Interaction with those around us is a fundamental need for all humans. While there are definite benefits that technology can bring to the classroom, technology changes quickly, and as Dr. Krashen notes in this letter to the Wall Street journal, we are uncertain how beneficial current technology will be to our students when they graduate, and if it is truly beneficial to all students the way a second language can be. The risks of technology must be considered too.
To all the language teachers reading this blog, thank you for all you do to connect our students to others and the world around them, strengthen their brains, and make the world a better place. To any administrators considering the language programs in your district, I hope you are able to see the full benefits language brings to our schools, districts, community and world.
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.