Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 27, 2013

Michigan needs more, not less, foreign language

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Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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. High school curriculum is worth reviewing, but in a shrinking world where people of different countries increasingly are 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. But foreign language is an essential part of a well-rounded education and eliminating the language requirement would be a step backward for Michigan students.

America urgently needs more foreign-language speakers — in business, in government, in the military. 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. 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.

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

Which gets us back to the bigger question of the state’s graduation requirements. First, they are flexible, and parents who take the time to work with school counselors can often work out a curriculum 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 don’t use those skills in our jobs. But 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.

A thorough discussion of Michigan’s high school curriculum is welcome, but any effort to water down the high school curriculum, and that includes any move to de-emphasize foreign language education, should be opposed.

The Holland Sentinel