21 October 2012

For the Non Believers: The Point to Learning Spanish

"I'll be honest, I don't see much point in him learning Spanish," Incredulous Parent said to me about halfway through our conversation. We had established that Incredulous Jr. was overall doing well, of course with the usual teenage ups and downs along the way, and  Incredulous Sr. seemed to be feeling pretty at ease with me. So I suppose he felt safe confessing that he did not see the point in everyone learning Spanish (which, aside from virtual classes, is all our tiny school can offer). Incredulous Jr. had alerted me to these sentiments, which Sr. assured me were not intended to give offense. None taken, I replied, it is a common enough concern.

But here's what you may not realize:even if your son never, ever meets someone who does not speak English, there are a host of other skills that he is honing by participating in Spanish class.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, without knowing it,
kind of sums up why everyone should learn a language.

You know those blogs he writes each week in Spanish? The very simple ones where he talks about his hobby and looks up practically every word? Think about how simply he is having to express himself, how carefully he is having to choose his words and his phrasing. Imagine how that will carry over into his expression in his native language, knowing now how to work his way around what he wanted to say in the most straightforward way possible.

"I hadn't thought about that!" said I. Parent. "I have always thought that they should be spending more time getting better at using their own language first before worrying about learning another. Like spelling: Junior needs some serious help with his spelling."

I've got you covered there, too, Señor! Why, just today, students were trying to find the Spanish equivalent of a set of vocabulary related to their app creation projects--a veritable cornucopia of 21st century learning in itself, what with the technology, project management, and cooperation skills involved! Junior was stumped on the word for "dehydration," so we went back to the Greek root for water in the word, hydra, and discussed the spelling differences one might expect in Spanish, with a little talk of prefixes as well. And all of the Latin-based goodness of the rest of the language helps not only with spelling but with preparation for SAT analogies questions!

"That does make sense!" No-Longer-Incredulous Sr. replied."Thank you for helping me see the point to learning Spanish."

Aside from a bit of poetic license, this is essentially an actual conversation I had with a parent recently, and the timing is excellent. Not only is it about time for me to assemble and finalize my Product of Learning for my Master's work, but the latest assignment for my last Spanish course of the program is to persuade a district to reinstate a previously cut language program.Oh, and it's between the language program and the music program. I am to employ logos, pathos, ethos,and kairos to make my point, meaning I need not only studies and statistics (for which I think ACTFL has my needs covered), but also stories like Señor Incredulous Parent's to tug at the ol' heartstrings.

Sometimes I think we go about it all wrong, convincing people that language is worth it. We cite studies about Alzheimer's and global economy, but what people really want to know is what good will it do me or my kid now? The people we have to convince that language learning is for everyone probably have more pressing concerns than how sharp their minds will be at 80 and their chances of getting a job as an international jet-setter. And they may somehow avoid having to communicate with people who speak no English. They need to hear that learning a language makes them better at things that matter to them, that they will see results even before graduation.

I estimate that on the "Framework for 21st Centuy Learning" put forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, language learning directly addresses 3 out of 3 "Learning and Innovation Skills," 3 out of 3 "Media, Information, and Technology Skills," and 5 out of 5 "Life and Career Skills" if delivered effectively. There is a point to learning a language, for everyone, and it is not just travel or test scores or job opportunities. Learning a language is about perspectives and communication, failure as a learning tool, analysis and connections, clarification and shared communication. It is about accessing and evaluating information, influence and effective expression. It is about negotiation of meaning, goal setting, interaction, and participation.

The NC Department of Instruction head-of-all-things-world-language asked me, years ago, "Don't you think everyone needs to learn a language?" At the time, I was not so sure. I thought it was just a fun thing for the linguistically minded. I could pay lip service to it being a sort of key to academic and occupational success from random statistics I'd heard too. But after talking with Mr. Incredulous Parent, I can finally say I do believe, that there is not just a point but a power in learning Spanish, in learning any new language.

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