Learning foreign languages is no longer the difficult challenge it used to be. Why? Decades ago we used phonograph records and tapes to teach foreign languages. The only place you could find foreign language television was in Quebec province in Canada. Fine if you lived in Vermont but not much good elsewhere. Back then the only way a teacher could immerse students in a foreign language was by taking them on trips to foreign countries - a major undertaking in most cases, and not to mention expensive and full of safety considerations. Underlying these factors was the reality that English is the official language of the United States.
Things have changed. Spanish and French are now routinely offered in most private schools. Italian, German and Mandarin are widely available. Your child can even take most of these languages at the AP level.
Learning to Think Globally
For many years most Americans didn't see the point of learning foreign languages. We insisted that everybody else learn English and attempt to understand us and our society.
Sadly, the savage attacks of 9/11 forced us to re-examine our place in the global community. We couldn't understand why foreigners hated us, our culture and our way of life. We couldn't understand cultures which promoted terrorism. We couldn't even understand what they were saying about us in their media because we couldn't speak Arabic. There's more to it than that, but one thing is very clear: American students must learn foreign languages if America is to regain her role as a global and economic leader.
The Internet has eliminated the distance factor. It has compressed our world and made it accessible to just about everybody anywhere. Cable television has also helped by broadcasting both domestic and foreign programming in many languages. You can visit other countries and experience their cultures with the click of a mouse. MySpace, Facebook, Skype, Twitter and texting all make us more of a global community. Best of all, we can find for ourselves information which has not being filtered by editorial opinion and government policy.
Explore Foreign Countries
It has become relatively easy to travel. An ATM card and a passport will get you just about anywhere these days. If you can afford to send your son or daughter to Canada or to Europe, investigate student travel. Children need to see the world. They will better understand where they fit in once they have experienced life in foreign countries.
Bring Other Cultures to Your School
The National Association of Independent Schools offers a wonderful initiative called the China Connection Program. It arranges for American schools to interview and recruit Chinese teachers as teachers of Mandarin. School Year Abroad offers programs in China, France, Italy, Spain and India. SYA emphasizes living with local families and immersing yourself in the local language. In other words your child lives with a French family and communicates in French if he chooses to participate in SYA's Year In France program. That's a good thing. Your child will benefit from the immersion experience by seeing how people in a foreign country really live. The differences and similarities in life styles and points of view are drawn out by such an intense experience.
Foreign Languages Are Relevant
The immediacy of the Internet makes foreign languages more relevant to us. It also promotes cultural understanding by allowing students to roam freely and safely in foreign countries. While there is no substitute for visiting a country, you can see what's out there and where we came from. You can see how very real the need is for foreign language skills in business and the professions.