My first experience with foreign languages was not a very pleasant one. It was September of 1986 and I had just started sixth grade in my native country of Spain when I got sick and had to stay home from school. Needless to say, I missed what would have been my first ever English lesson. The events of the next day, when I returned to school, have stuck to my memory until today.
Class time arrived and Don Javier, the school’s new English teacher, walked into the classroom, put his books down, and immediately started to ask a series of unintelligible questions to the students. To my surprise, my classmates had no problem understanding and answering his questions in English. As I prayed that Don Javier would not call on me, I looked at my classmates in astonishment. I could not believe that after only a day of class, they were already communicating in another language!
Rather than having a discouraging effect, that first experience instilled in me a deep desire to master the English language. This desire led me to live in three different English-speaking countries, and to become a foreign-language professor in the United States. Today, I have no doubt that learning a language has changed my life in ways that I could never have imagined.
Similarly, I am convinced that language-learning can be life-changing to American students in both their professional careers and their personal lives. Being fluent in another language not only opens doors in a job market that is more competitive than ever before, but also gives students greater insight into their own language and opens their minds to a world that is culturally and linguistically diverse.
In 1996, the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning were published as an answer to a concern from educators and the government about the role of foreign languages in American education. Furthermore, in 2006 the government called for an increase in the number of Americans that are fluent in critical-need languages. Surprisingly, and in spite of the emphasis at the federal level, foreign language study has not received the attention that it deserves in American education. Furthermore, over the past three decades, scholars in the language profession have called attention to the low numbers of African American students in foreign language programs in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 4.1% of the bachelor’s degrees in foreign languages were awarded to African Americans in 2006.
Personally, I believe that we, at Lincoln University, have a unique opportunity to turn this state of affairs around by increasing the percentage of African Americans who are fluent in a foreign language. At the departmental level, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to recruit new students. We emphasize the importance of language study not only in the classroom, but also on the entire campus with events such as Language Day, Language Night, the International Food Festival, and the Study Abroad Convocation. Over the years, we have shaped our curriculum so that it matches the latest research on language-teaching methods, and we have established ourselves as a vibrant, open, and friendly department. However, we cannot do this alone. We need the help of the entire Faculty and Administration to change the NCES gloomy figures. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to achieve this goal, and only through collaboration will we succeed in this endeavor.
Many in the Faculty have experienced learning another language, either by taking courses, traveling abroad, or talking to immigrants in their communities. For many, English is their second (or third, maybe fourth) language and they use it to conduct their professional life in the United States. I think that it would be very enriching if we all shared our thoughts and experiences about language learning in this blog. I’m very interested in reading your comments to this post. As a final point, I would like to thank Nancy Evans and Linda Stine for making the discussion possible through the creation of this blog.