Michigan needs much more, not less foreign language

Michigan’s rigorous high school graduation standards are again under discussion in the Legislature, and this time one of the targets is the requirement of at least two years of a foreign language. The high school curriculum is definitely worth reviewing, but in a shrinking world where people of different countries are increasingly drawn together, we don’t need less language education, we need more.

HB 4102, sponsored by Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac, would allow students to substitute computer science for either the existing foreign language or Algebra 2 requirement. The intent is to create more flexibility in course selection for students, especially those interested in vocational classes. However, we believe foreign language is an essential part of a well-rounded education and eliminating the language requirement would be a step backward for Michigan students.

As a matter of national competitiveness, America urgently needs more foreign-language speakers – in business, in government, in the military – to communicate with the rest of the world. And we need skills in languages beyond the Spanish and French typically taught in high school – in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and other tongues spoken by hundreds of millions of people. A company of any size in today’s global economy is an international business, buying, selling and collaborating overseas. Mastery of a foreign language is almost a golden ticket for employment. And that’s not to mention the benefits of cultural understanding or brain development that comes when a student learns another language.

While most Europeans take one and often two foreign language beginning in elementary school, the United States may be the only major country where someone can graduate from high school and college without ever studying another language. Which students do you think are better prepared to function in a globalized economy?

Plenty of people in the Holland area recognize the value of learning a foreign language at an early age. Spanish immersion programs in local schools have been extremely popular, and Zeeland Christian School is now pioneering a Chinese immersion program for young elementary students. Immersion, of course, is the efficient way to learn a language. Two years in high school isn’t going to give a student more than a taste of a language, but it’s an important taste, helping students qualify for college and opening them to potential new worlds of understanding. (And for the record, students can now satisfy the state’s foreign language requirement with elementary or middle school courses – they don’t have to wait for high school.)

Which gets us back to the bigger question of the state’s graduation requirements. First, contrary to what many people believe, they are flexible, and parents who take the time to work with school counselors can often work out a curriculum that’s better suited to their children. Second, the requirements are about giving students options and building a foundation for future learning, not providing specific skills for specific jobs. Most of us who took advanced algebra or physics in high school in a previous generation don’t use those skills in our jobs. However, advanced algebra and physics are essential if a student wants to pursue study and a career in science or technology. Similarly, learning a language in high school gives a student exposure to it and the chance to pursue it at a higher level. Letting a student slide through high school without taking challenging, advanced courses closes all kinds of doors for them. Not everyone will or should go to college, but we shouldn’t put a 14-year-old freshman on a path that forecloses the possibility of higher education.

We certainly welcome a thorough discussion of Michigan’s high school curriculum. We agree that students in vocational training programs should have options that integrate advanced math and science. However, we oppose any effort to water down the high school curriculum, and that includes any move to de-emphasize foreign language education.