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Letter from February 3rd, 2015 written by Jeff Stonehill of Seattle in The Seattle Times
“Language Programs: Important to Learn at a Young Age.”
Seattle area public schools are much maligned these days as they try to do more things for a more varied student body with less funding than they need.
It was a treat to read Sarah Stuteville’s column about the Vietnamese language immersion program [“Vietnamese taught at school with community in mind,” Local News, Jan. 29]. Brain science has shown that children can learn two or even three languages easily up until about the ages of 10 or 12, at which point some learning port closes and second language acquisition becomes much more difficult and unnatural for most people. And when do our schools traditionally begin to teach languages? High school.
Anyone who has been to Western Europe has to have wondered why so many Europeans are conversant in two or three languages. Much of the answer is that they are taught at least one other language in elementary school. As the world around us changes from an American-dominated economy, it would serve us well to have our children grow up fluent in other languages so we can do business with other nations in their languages.
My Response to Jeff Stonehill’s Letter to the Editor
The problem Jeff Stonehill addresses is that language learning in schools usually starts later on the educational path, sometimes as late as high school. By then, however, it is usually harder for people to learn another language.
There are people who will never take a second language course, will never be interested in learning a second language, or give up simply because it doesn’t make sense or requires a lot of work. There’s often the ridicule of non-English speakers living in the United States being told “You live in America now, learn to speak English!” Why does it have to be the one way though? Why can’t it be both ways?
I had wanted to learn the language when I was younger, but was not taught. It is a decision my mother says she regrets. Perhaps this is why my love of languages is as strong as it is. Sadly, I now have no desire to learn Lithuanian. Instead I had opted to take Spanish in middle and high school before switching over to Japanese which is now my current passion. Learning a new language is not an easy task but I believe that learning at a younger age is definitely more beneficial than being introduced to it in high school.
The article argues, rather bluntly, that high school is a late start for language learning. I will agree. I started Spanish in seventh grade of middle school and hardly any of it has stuck. If I had started earlier than that, with consistency throughout the educational years, I may have continued with it and actually learned. With Spanish being boasted as an easy language, as well as a very common one (so popular that the class ran out of textbooks in my high school class), it was also very easy to get discouraged.
Little kids on the other hand, are always learning, and almost always doing something before they learn whether they got it right or wrong. I agree that starting younger would be very beneficial to students, and middle school is not early enough of a start. Elementary should be where the introduction to foreign languages begins. Even if the young students don’t understand it at the time, they have a longer educational path in order to learn if they wish to continue.
Maybe a late start would be better in some cases: a high school student should have an idea of what they are going to be doing after they graduate and if they want language credits on a transcript for higher education or a certain job. Understanding grammar and conjugations may also come easier because the vocabulary in the English or other primary language is greater and therefore if a student becomes stuck is better able to understand the reasons why.
But that in its self could be another reason why learning a language earlier in life and the academic career is a good thing! Starting off earlier could put learners at a better advantage, because as they are learning grammar, structure, and vocabulary in their primary language, the gap between that and the second would not be as big. They would be learning both at a much closer rate than a high school student who is in their first year of a foreign language.
Speaking of learning a second language at an early age, there is another experience I had in high school that really surprised me. A girl in my Spanish class had grown up in a Spanish speaking household. She knew the language fairly well, but the reason she had joined the class was because she could not read it. That is pretty much the same thing with my grandma and mother. They both know Lithuanian well enough to communicate, but neither can read. We even own a Lithuanian/English dictionary, but it is of little value since none of us knows how we are actually supposed to pronounce the words in there.
So, the main focus should be in schools and starting as early as possible. It is great to grow up in a bilingual household or even one with more, but for the rest of us we may not be so lucky. And it isn’t just the language we could be learning, but about other cultures as well. Starting at a younger age and introducing children to cultures and traditions that differ from their own, could also develop a greater respect for others.
The world that used to be so big it took months to travel across an ocean is now small enough that it is possible to go just about anywhere in a matter of days. In doing so, there are a lot more people available to interact with. How great would it be to travel to a country and know that anyone you wanted to talk to, you could? Maybe in a more formal setting: during in a meeting with foreign business representatives, how impressed they would be that a translator was not needed? However, in order to get there we need to start somewhere. The old saying is true when it comes to high school and middle school language classes, or later in life. Better late than never, but why wait until later? Let us start today.
The essay was very well written. The organization was sound; you had the arguments laid out in a manner that solidified your argument. The language is casual and informal, I am not sure if that is what you are going after, but some of my comments tighten up the language a little more by making it more active and concise. It might just be a technique thing, but the questions in the paper may be effective but informal. I did not want to write too many comments on the same issue, but I found that the language needed to be more concise and to the point.
Other than that, strong argument, good reflection of the article, and an easy to read and understand paper.
Please remember that this paper is open-access and other students can use it too.
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