The digital age has made the world more connected than ever before. With the click of a button, individuals can share a video with a friend in Norway, instantly wire money to a family member in Indonesia or Skype with a client in Ghana.
But despite all these resources that have helped make the world a smaller place, there still is one last global element that remains foreign to many Americans: language.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, approximately 75 percent of Americans speak only one language. Despite this lack of fluency, 43 percent of the nation believes it is important to know as many languages as possible.
Like most knowledge-based problems, the root goes back to the educational system.
[pullquote]When you start making comparisons through language, it helps make your ability to talk to people and find other words and draw from a richer lexicon of language, even in your first language.[/pullquote]“Foreign language programs are struggling in the United States largely because we have people in a teaching position who [don’t] speak a foreign language: the end. Kids have to be involved in the learning. You can’t poke information into students,” says Dr. Clydia Forehand, English language development specialist for Tulsa Public Schools at Park Elementary and Eisenhower International schools.
Eisenhower International School is one of a number of schools throughout Oklahoma where an emphasis is placed on language immersion. At Eisenhower, from the first time a kindergartener enters the school they are taught, spoken to and guided in a targeted foreign language.
“The immersion process is what Eisenhower is all about,” says Forehand. “Ninety percent of the time, they are learning math and reading and lining up for school in the target language.”
Despite the unfamiliarity of the language, Forehand admits that students are never completely lost. Hands, facial expressions and nonverbal communication are all used to aid in the immersion process. Eventually, as a student builds confidence, they find ways to say what they need to say.
“It is truly amazing to see the kids go from looking at me like a deer in the headlights to fully conversing amongst each other in Spanish,” says Rachel Smith, an elementary Spanish instructor with Jenks Public Schools.
One advantage that researchers have found in individuals who learned a second language early in life is that as they’re studying a new language, they’re also using other areas of the mind, which can aid in many cognitive learning processes. Additionally, learning a second language allows a person to cross the midline of the brain: They’re using the logical side of the brain and the artistic side.
“When you start making comparisons through language, it helps make your ability to talk to people and find other words and draw from a richer lexicon of language, even in your first language,” says Forehand.
Another key element of learning a foreign language is understanding the culture that comes with it.
“Language without culture is deadly,” says Forehand. “You don’t want to alienate people no matter [what] you’re speaking.”
With this in mind, many foreign language programs throughout Oklahoma are beginning to weave the cultural dynamics of each language into the curriculum.
This degree of education goes beyond the realm of linguistics and actually helps form an appreciation of other cultures and an expansion of a child’s worldview. Ultimately, more culturally aware students leads to more culturally aware adults, and more culturally aware adults lead to a more productive society.