SAIS Students Address Lack of Foreign Language Education in U.S. Primary Schools

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ForeignLanguage2Many SAIS students have already lived or traveled abroad prior to beginning their graduate coursework, and many have a strong foundation in a foreign language from their college years. In some cases, students use their time at SAIS to begin learning a second or third foreign language.

As emerging professionals in international affairs, SAIS students appreciate the role cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication plays in shaping international dialogues. For those outside the ivory towers of DC’s policy schools, however, the urgency may be less apparent. Less than 1% of Americans today are proficient in a foreign language that they learned in a classroom setting. In February 2015, the Modern Language Association (MLA) released a report indicating that enrollment in language programs at the college level in the US declined, dropping to 7% in 2013.

In the summer following the release of the report, foreign language education advocates gathered in congressional conference rooms in Washington to push for prioritization of foreign language education among college students. This was followed by a flurry of op-eds in US news media that addressed the demise of foreign language offerings at the college level.

Foreign language instruction provides immense benefits to US college graduates who enter an increasingly globalized economy. While English may be the lingua franca of the business and policy worlds, American graduates must compete with candidates from other countries who have not only taken the time to learn English, but know other languages as well. This is especially true in Europe, where foreign language study is compulsory in many countries. In China, students begin studying English during primary school and must continue to do so through their first year of college. If American graduates want to compete and successfully interact in a globalized job market, it may not be enough to just speak English.  

While the MLA report and its accompanying news coverage reminds us of the importance of foreign language instruction at the college level, there has been comparatively little discussion concerning foreign language instruction for younger learners. Many studies have shown that the children’s neurology is more receptive to foreign language acquisition.

Humans make use of two memory systems: declarative memory and procedural memory. The former activates when you recall facts or knowledge, and thus is always  developing. The procedural system, however, develops early in life as a foundation upon which the declarative system processes knowledge. Children under the age of seven pick up new languages more easily because they make use of their still-developing procedural memory system to do so. Adults, whose procedural memory system is already established, will make use of declarative memory systems to learn foreign languages. The cognitive approaches to language learning are fundamentally different for children versus adults.

Thus, it may make more sense to direct US educators’ attention  towards primary school students rather than those in college. Many other countries already seemed to have picked up this logic. It also is not just US educators and policymakers who can push for such action, but SAIS students and community members themselves. In my first few weeks as a SAIS student during pre-term, I met Kathryn Botto, a Policy Research Fellow at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies here at SAIS. Botto founded and now runs the Young Diplomats of Garrison Elementary, a volunteer project that aims to link SAIS and other IR students proficient in a foreign language with primary school students at Garrison Elementary School. I signed up for the volunteer program immediately and currently coordinate the curriculum for our language teams, who teach Arabic, Hindi, French, Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean.  

YDoGE volunteers walk from SAIS to Garrison Elementary every Friday afternoon to provide foreign language tutoring in Garrison’s after-school program. As Botto told me, “Young professionals and graduate students in DC aren’t involved in the DC community, and DC is a transient city. I thought YDoGE would be a great way to get students involved with the local community, and also address the lack of foreign language education in DC public schools.” In Botto’s view, SAIS students have knowledge they could be using in new and socially beneficial ways while also learning more about the community in which they live. Some portions of that community do not enjoy the same access to foreign language that many of us at SAIS have enjoyed. As Siddharth Ravishankar notes, “I decided to study international relations when I was very young, and I want to have that same effect on 2nd and 3rd grade students here.”

The project is only in its pilot stage –   many students at Garrison previously did not how to read a map, let alone say hello in another language – but it has already made an impact.  Jaye, a 4th grade student learning Chinese, remarks that “if I ever meet a Chinese person, I will know how to talk to them.” For me personally, Jaye’s perspective is telling. Learning foreign languages not only allows us to understand other cultures, but also expands the roster of people with whom we can interact and look beyond our immediate environment. Adulthood may be too late a time to begin doing so.  

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