Clarity is often found in bizarre places. When watching stand-up comedy, I hardly expect to gain insight into an issue that has baffled politicians for decades. But that is exactly what happened while watching comedian Chris Rock.
His story opens as he walks into an elevator. As he turns around, a Chinese family follows. Throughout the ride, they are speaking in rapid Chinese to each other. Rock becomes paranoid and is convinced that they are talking about him. Unable to control himself, he loses it. “People, this is America!” he screams. “Speak Spanish!”
While humorous, Rock’s routine demonstrates the multilingual atmosphere that has developed across the country. Politics and cultural fears aside, the importance of the knowledge of a foreign language should be evident to anyone who holds a job, reads the newspaper or even rides a public elevator.
Proficiency in a second language is more than a social convenience. It can provide employment opportunities. Individuals with an extensive grasp of more than one language have an advantage when looking for jobs. Globalization and other factors force American company employees to learn foreign languages at an ever-increasing rate.
Schools have taken notice and intensive language curriculum has flourished. Studies show that while the grade school population had increased by only 4.5 percent within the last decade, students entering in foreign language immersion programs increased nationwide by 51 percent. However, it seems not everyone can identify with Rock’s anecdote. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett has strongly opposed immersion instruction, insisting that drawing funds away from foreign languages would result in higher English scores.
This stance has been supported by many Americans, who remain convinced that early education in a foreign language would make children less adept in an English speaking country and culture.
But the fear that English skills will be lost with the existence of language immersion is unfounded. In fact, just the opposite is true. A seven year case study compared fourth-graders taught only in English and fourth-graders voluntarily enrolled in a dual (Spanish-English) immersion program. Even in English language arts, the bilingual fourth-graders scored an average 30 percentile points higher than their monolingual counter parts. With this information, one hopes that the “real America” will embrace multilingual education.
The Center for Applied Linguistics indicates schools with multiple language programs can expect to see better academic performance, mastery of English and diminished dropout rates. As educational experts praise multilingual instruction, its growth continues. From 1990 to 2004, the amount of dual language immersion programs in California alone increased from 35 to more than 315.
With this growth come serious implications affecting the U.S. education system. As school districts introduce immersion programs, intensive language education will no longer be an instructive luxury - it will become a requirement.
Schools face little choice. If they refuse, a clear educational divide will develop. We have established that language immersion students have an academic advantage over their peers. Other school districts - public and private - will soon realize that unless they impose similar intensive foreign language requirements, they place their students at risk of lesser achievement. Schools will be under too much pressure from parents, teachers and the U.S. government to not implement an intensive language education program.
It is a win-win situation. Students both increase their overall performance and gain a marketable skill. Not to mention, Chris Rock’s elevator rides will become a lot less awkward.