The benefits of multilingualism are endless: higher salaries, increased cognitive ability and even better health make up just a few. Yet while Fairfax County has successfully placed a large emphasis on high school language programs, their unwillingness to integrate foreign languages into the elementary school curriculum undermines all other efforts.
With the world more interconnected than ever before, mandatory foreign language programs in elementary school are a necessity in school systems that aims to produce well-rounded and successful students.
High school foreign language programs fail largely for one reason: they are too little, too late.
According to the Critical Period Hypothesis, a theory popularized by neurologist Eric Lenneberg, children must begin learning a language before the age of 12 if they wish to master it rather than just become proficient in certain concepts of the language. Schools need to accept this scientific truth and increase the measures taken in order to ensure that every student is provided the opportunity of becoming multilingual.
While opponents of foreign language classes in elementary schools may argue that our education system should focus on teaching children a single language before it introduces second or even third languages, they vastly underestimate the ability of the human mind, and as a result they are forcing the United States to fall further behind other nations that recognize the value of multilingual education.
Surveys conducted by the European Commission and the U.S. Census Bureau show that Europeans are nearly three times more likely to be bilingual than Americans, and people from Sweden are more than five times more likely to be bilingual than Americans.
Through the absence of a foreign language program in the elementary school, Fairfax County is putting its students at a competitive disadvantage when they eventually enter the workforce: a study done by the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International shows that 66% of headhunters around the world say that being bilingual is critical for an employee to be successful in today’s business environment.
The solution of after-school language clubs for elementary school students may have some positive results, but it is in no way the solution that is needed to repair the broken system. Many students at that age might not yet recognize the importance of learning a second language, and the decision not to participate in a club as a child might severely limit them for the rest of their life.
Students in the United States have the ability to catch up with those in Europe and elsewhere around the world, but the first step in catching up must come through strengthening our foreign language programs.