In Language-Learning, Let Our Children Show the Way
by Domenico Maceri
July 12, 1999

My neighbor's brother is an international businessman. He insists that my neighbor's daughter should begin studying Spanish immediately.

The child is 4.

That may be a little young, but it's not off the mark.

The United States' world-renowned stupidity when it comes to foreign languages has to end if we want to remain a major power. And the process needs to begin with children.

In California, it's relatively easy for children to start their study of Spanish early. The Golden State has 90 of the nation's 200 dual-language public schools in which subjects are taught in both English and Spanish, or some other second language.

These schools differ from the bilingual education programs aimed strictly at children who don't know English. The goal of dual-language programs is for all students to learn two languages.

The advantages of knowing Spanish, in particular, are obvious. First are the economic benefits. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Miami reveals that linguistic knowledge among Hispanic families drastically affected annual family income. Those who spoke only Spanish had an average income of $18,000; families with only English, $32,000; and those with Spanish and English, $50,376.

In addition to the dollar signs, studying other languages also makes students better learners of all subjects while they are still in school. Bilingual/bicultural children have many advantages over those who are monolingual because they possess what researchers call a "plasticity'' of the brain. This ability to learn new languages translates into other areas. Bilingual/bicultural individuals grasp that just as there are two ways to say the same thing, there are two ways to learn new things or solve problems.

Bilingual children develop a mental agility and flexibility about learning that the monolingual do not. This flexibility is vital in today's world, where employees are often asked to acquire new skills to stay abreast of technological changes.

Although English and Spanish bilingualism may be easiest to achieve, and most desirable, the practical and intellectual benefits of bilingualism may be reached with another languages. French, Japanese or some other crucial languages could easily take the place of Spanish in some parts of the country. This second language should become part of the curriculum for the long haul, for in order to gain fluency, students need to study it for about five or six years.

Other countries understand very well the importance of languages. With an economy aimed primarily at exporting, the Japanese have learned that to sell their products, they have to know the customers -- and that means the customers' language.

Learning about customers is not just a matter of learning their words. The study of culture -- history, geography, politics, traditions -- goes hand-in-hand with language. Language and cultural study are essential components of an outwardly looking educational system. It is typical of Japan, as well as other major industrial countries.

Today, events in any part of the world can have dramatic effects in the United States. A slide in Asian stock markets can trigger one in New York. To understand these events and be able to influence them, we need linguistic and cultural knowledge that goes beyond English.

To prepare our children for a world that continues to gets smaller, we need to give them the necessary tools, including the knowledge of a second language. We will cease to be a major power if our children cannot communicate with the rest of the world.

(Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif. He may be reached by e-mail at