What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
And what do you call someone who speaks one language?
It is funny because it is mostly true. Compared to European adults, 48 percent who speak two or more languages, only nine percent of us can speak a second language. We are ethnocentric. We expect everyone else to learn English. We have little desire to learn their language. And we are passing this bad to our next generation.
ESL (English as a Second Language) programs in Kansas are seriously flawed. You would not expect someone who had never done math to teach math, or someone who had never driven a car to teach drivers training. But all ESL programs in Kansas purport to train competent teachers of ESL without ever requiring the teacher to have learned a second language themselves.
The fact that we learned to speak English naturally as a young child is not the same as trying to learn a second language as an older child. The first language is learned naturally by all children worldwide without much formal instruction, and involves primarily Broca’s region of the brain. Learning a second language later is usually by study, and that involves Wernicke’s region of the brain. It is a different task. Most ESL teachers we train in Kansas have not done this themselves. You cannot teach very effectively something that you have not experienced yourself.
Secondly, Texas and Oklahoma require their college students who are preparing for any teaching degree to complete a year of foreign language. While a few take other languages, the preponderance of student teachers take Spanish. While this does not make them fluent in the language, it gives them the ability to understand some of the background of the growing group of students in their classes. It also increases the appreciation of teachers for the cultural diversity of their students and the advantages of thinking through problems from many different perspectives. No teacher training university or college in Kansas can alone be first to require foreign language in its curriculum for fear of losing students to other programs that do not. To follow Texas and Oklahoma in requiring all K-12 teachers to take a foreign language would have to be a Board of Regents directive for all universities.
There are a few schools in Kansas, an elementary magnet school in Wichita and a few others, that “do international languages right.” All children take their math classes in Spanish. The children who do not speak English fluently get coursework in English, but the native English speaking children are likewise immersed in Spanish in many of their classes. This education is truly bilingual. And the benefits accrue to all of our schoolchildren. If America is to continue to be a major player in this next century’s economy, this is the path we must follow immediately.
It is arrogant and impolite to not be able to offer the basic amenities of saying “Excuse me” or “Thank you” in the language of people around you. And in this Western hemisphere, the majority language is Spanish.