Hey graduates, are you bilingual? You should be
Oregon's 2008 third quarter exports surged by 30 percent; China, not Canada, is now our leading export partner. As the U.S. economy slows, and Northwest companies leverage their geographic advantage by increasing exports to the Pacific Rim, this recent news is not surprising. The International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce released its data in February; Oregon has had 20 percent annualized growth in exports to China since 2003. Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia complete the top five list, and Governor Ted Kulongoski recently flew to Asia on a trade mission.
Our education system has been slow to adjust to the paradigm shift from our English speaking trade partners to the north, to our Mandarin speaking trade partners to the west. The class of 2009 can graduate from Oregon's high schools needing only one credit in 'Career and Technical Education, The Arts, and / or Second Language.' It is not until the class of 2012 that the requirement increases to three credits, with the alternative for students to earn the credits in 'any one area or in combination.'
School districts can independently require their graduates to exceed the state's minimal second language requirements. Many do so because, paradoxically, both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University require two years of second language (or equivalent competency) for admission. But even districts with high schools rated excellent by the Oregon Department of Education and with stricter diploma requirements fall short of creating graduates who can compete in Oregon's increasingly global economy.
Offering a full course of second language classes removes the first barrier. West Linn-Wilsonville District is the latest to add Mandarin language instruction to its curriculum. The three beginning classes are full, with plans to add a second year program next year. Lake Oswego School District added Mandarin two years ago and is in its third year of a phased in implementation.
If creating access to second language classes were the only barrier, districts with four-year curriculum offerings in Mandarin, Spanish and French would adequately prepare their graduates to be as functionally fluent as their bilingual peers in Asia, South American and Europe. But this year, Lake Oswego School District had to combine its third year Mandarin students from Lakeridge and Lake Oswego High into one class. The decline in enrollment for students taking an optional year of any second language is known as 'two and drop'. Having met the state university system's minimum requirement for admission, students drop their second language, many by their Junior year.
If the graduates of Oregon's education system are to gain employment in the global economy, they must be required to be functionally fluent in two languages at graduation. Our public universities should be this agent of change, with local school districts laying the foundation. Otherwise, Oregon will be exporting its jobs to China along with all of those trade goods.
U of O Second Language proficiency requirements
U.S. Department of Commerce
Carolyn Heymann is a resident of Lake Oswego.