Monday, September 10, 2012

Language Problems

Every once in a while, I feel a burning urge to somehow put to use that degree in Linguistics I earned all those years ago. This time, it started with two articles that recently caught my attention ... the first was from yesterday's Washington Post, under the headline "Fairfax Schools System Faces Growing Budget Challenge As More Students Need ESOL Classes;" the other was this story from NPR which aired last Saturday: "Some Georgia Schools Make Mandarin Mandatory."

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, which is a relatively affluent area, the well-regarded school system is facing the same sort of budget problems that are plaguing school systems across the country ... but with a bit of a twist: so many foreign families are moving to the area and enrolling their children in the public schools that budgets for training in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are mushrooming, to the detriment of other subjects. According to the article,

"This year, about 31,500 students are projected to enroll in ESOL, representing 17 percent [emphasis is mine] of the total county student population and an increase of nearly one-third from last year."

The problem is compounded by the fact that ESOL teaching is mandated by the federal government, but the law prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for it. As a result, money that could be used to pay for vital education for all students in reading, math, science, and - yes - civics must be siphoned off to help teach foreign students the basic English they need to master everything else.

I strongly believe in education for all, but this is just wrong.

The other story strikes me as a classic example of a wonderful idea that makes no sense in current conditions.

The superintendent of public schools in Bibb County, Georgia (the area surrounding the city of Macon) has instituted a requirement for the teaching of Mandarin Chinese to every student from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. The superintendent, Romain Dallemand, says,

"Students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they'll be at the pinnacle of their career. They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price."

In itself, this is not a bad idea. I firmly believe in the importance of learning a foreign language - more than one, if possible - and China is definitely a growing economic, military, and political power with which we must be able to communicate effectively. But at a time when schools are overrun with students who cannot function in English, it seems silly to mandate the teaching of a supremely difficult language like Mandarin, important though it may be.

The GOP made a lot of noise during its convention about the importance of education. But when the party's program is based largely on cutting taxes - which, oddly enough, pay for public education - it makes one doubt the sincerity of their belief in education. But then, this is the party that ignores basic science and includes loud fringe groups that insist on teaching "creation science."

Education has always been important, but in the 21st century, it's more important than ever. We need to prepare our students with strong basic skills in math, science, critical thinking, and - yes - foreign languages. But if limited funds must be spent simply to teach basic English to students who exclusively speak another language at home, we will continue to fall behind other nations which recognize the importance of a well-rounded education.

If we don't spend money on elementary, secondary, and higher education, we'll find that there will be plenty of jobs for our young people in the future ... offering fries and dessert with the burgers ordered by the foreigners who prize education and are willing to make the necessary investment in it.

Have a good day. Learn a foreign language, but learn other things, too. And support the people who teach your children.

More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

I wasn't aware that the Federal mandate for ESOL also stipulated that they could not use Federal funds to pay for it! This would puta huge burden on most small-sized school districts. I'm amazed also at the Mandarin requirement. It would seem that a stronger case could be made for Spanish, just in terms to everyday utility.

Our approach to science in this country is pathetic.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

I am so torn on this topic. And I know that makes me an upopular gal.

I agree that learning these languages is very important but not in lieu of math or other subjects.
I also get the need for Manadarin since everything is made there and we do a lot of business there whether I like it or not they seem to be taking over the world. Call Dish Network help support - I could use Mandarin.

Remember when speaking English was a big deal around the world to do business with us? I somehow feel like this says a lot about where "we" are in the world today.

My father was the only 1 of 8 born here in America. The rest worked very hard to learn English to fit in. No one allowed them to speak Italian at school. The mentality was so much the opposite it is today. They came here to learn English and immerese themselves in it. They felt to be American was to speak it and strive for the american dream. They spoke both languages at home though. They were so proud to live here and speak what they perceived as the American language. I find it a bit sad that we no longer have one or the pride that goes with it.

Big Sky Heidi said...

I think learning a second language is important in this globalized economy; but it should be coupled with an effective knowledge of one's own language. I think that there are benefits that come with a second language, whatever one it is.

Should we pass up Danish, for example? I don't think so.

Service Unit Manger Katherine Tucker said...

I have two friends who are ESOL teachers and the kids they have really WANT to learn English. It is a huge challenge because their parents are struggling to learn too and the teachers may have 20 different native languages in their classroom. I do think federal funds should be used for ESOL classes, but they definitely need to happen.

And shame on you, Bill, for picking on the Georgia district! They are lucky to have ANY foreign language directed for all ages. I think in our world having an ability in a foreign language is just as critical as basic math and english. Many studies have shown that learning a foreign language--ANY foreign language young, before age 9 or 10, significantly increases the ability of the child to learn and adapt to other languages. So early exposure is key. And yet, in many districts, sports are kept but langugages cut. Why is that? I get that basic physical activity is a plus and some sports taught are life skills and just getting along on a team is a valuable lesson. But so is communicating. So is adding and subtracting. I honestly don't know how you pick one skill over another to fund.

Duckbutt said...

I think it's a great idea for children to be taught a second or even a third language; but it seems that which one they're taught should be influenced by probability of utility factors in the process.

I remember Russian being emphasized in the late 1960's, as an antidote to the usual grad school required languages: French and German.

The Bastard King of England said...

How can the schools be expected to do foreign languages well