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Language studies help students

Young people want to take languages whether they are required to or not.

I am deeply dismayed at the recent decision of Forest Grove High School to eliminate programs in world languages.

Imagine a world in which we all wore the same clothes, hairstyles, and shoes. Imagine if we all had the same kind of houses, read the same books, and listened to the same music.

Pretty dull, right?

By cutting programs in German, French and Japanese, FGHS is cultivating such homogeneity.

Language lies at the root of human identity. Language allows people to communicate as individuals and as groups. Besides this basic human grounding in language, academic and pragmatic reasons support the need for language study at all educational levels.

Academically, language learning contributes to a school's health and reputation by providing students with the tools to compete in an increasingly globally directed world.

Research shows that language learning correlates with higher achievement on standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT.

Language learners demonstrate an increased linguistic awareness, which contributes to higher reading abilities and cognitive skills. Additionally, there is a positive connection between language learning and greater capacities to hypothesize in science.

Moreover, admission to most colleges requires taking at least two years of a language in high school. The University of Oregon and Oregon State University, for example, have a two-year entrance requirement. College-bound students at FGHS will still need to take a language for two years. Eliminating language programs will not reduce the need or demand for classes. Most likely, new teachers will be necessary to teach remaining languages. Thus, even from a budgetary standpoint, cutting language may not bring financial relief.

Pragmatically, businesses and organizations want to hire people who know languages. In 2010 the Language Flagship Program, an initiative of the Department of Defense's National Security Education Program, released a report titled 'What Business Wants: Language Needs in the 21st Century.' The study asked 100 business leaders to 'identify the role and value of languages and cultural skills to business' bottom line' and identify ways in which leaders from business, K-12 and higher education, and government can work together to 'bring significant change to language education in the United States.' The report states that companies 'need language and cultural skills on their staff for improving global business practices and for serving a domestically based multi-lingual workforce and clientele.'

Studies indicate that young people want to take languages, whether they are required to or not. Young people recognize the value of learning about other cultures through their languages. They are traveling more; they are interacting more with people from other countries and cultures through social media; and they are finding jobs in business, education, the health professions, law, politics, and the arts, where they need to use other languages to communicate beyond the level of the average tourist.

According to a recent study by the Modern Language Association, more college students than ever before are enrolled in world languages courses. The desire to learn languages is beginning at younger and younger ages, and increasingly more elementary schools are offering classes to enthusiastic pupils. High schools should capture that motivation and encourage students to continue their learning.

Some may argue that everyone in the world speaks English anyway, so what is the value of learning other languages? Any American who has learned another language will attest to the deep appreciation and respect that speakers of languages other than English show for any American's willingness to communicate on an even playing field. On a practical level, the American who knows another language does not always have to ask with embarrassment: 'Do you speak English?'

An American who knows the language of a host country or culture can share more readily in conversations that involve family and friends of the target language speaker. Mutual efforts to communicate in one another's language lead to a deeper level of cultural understanding and personal connection. Learning another language is a gift both to oneself and to others.

I urge FGHS to think of the long-term investment that learning languages has in our youth, our communities, and our country's well being. I ask that FGHS consider the academic, pragmatic, and humanistic reasons for continuing to teach languages. We owe it to our young people to enrich their lives with heterogeneity.

- Lorely French is a professor of German at Pacific University in Forest Grove.