Learning another language is nothing to be afraid of
Arizona Daily Star
May 27, 2008

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By Alexandria Whitehead
Special to the Arizona Daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/240862
 
From the time I was 10, I've wanted to learn French. When I started at Tucson High Magnet School last fall, I was excited to finally have my chance. As I walked into my first French class the last period of the day my palms were sweaty from how nervous I was. I had waited 14 years for this opportunity, and I didn't want to mess up.
I wasn't able to learn French earlier because private lessons were much too expensive for my low-income family, and my parents and I were not aware of any
other options. I depended on the public school system to teach me French, and that meant waiting until I was in high school.
Little did I know that the International School of Tucson is available for kids ages 3-11 to learn another language before they get to high school. In many cases, the students at the International School come from bilingual homes. But some of the children who attend were like me when I was younger just curious about other languages and cultures.
The interviews and photos here are a peek into what it's like to speak a foreign language as effortlessly as it is to breathe or walk.
Why you need one
Suzanne Panferov is the director of the Center for English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona. CESL is an educational center with programs specializing in the teaching of English to speakers of other languages. She is also the parent of a child who attends the International School of Tucson.
"For most of the world learning a second or additional language is completely natural and no longer 'questioned' as to whether it is beneficial.
"The most obvious benefits are greater opportunities for global communication, which opens educational, commercial, and professional benefits.
"There are social, cultural and familial benefits, such as being able to communicate with family members in other parts of the world, as well as cognitive benefits.
"Learning another language opens up whole bodies of literature, understanding of music, access to more educational and travel possibilities, and entire new networks of friends.
"Though Tucson is heavily Spanish-language-influenced, typically the teaching of a 'second' language in Tucson still refers to a non-native English speaker learning English.
"Not all students in Tucson have equal access to learning a 'foreign' language as most schools do not offer intensive foreign language courses.
"In an ideal world, everyone would support the teaching of other languages due to the many benefits.
"However, language is very tightly tied to our own identities and some (people) are very threatened by other languages and so the issue is very politicized.
"Being a parent to an International School of Tucson child for me means the usual antics of having an elementary- aged child but with the added richness of her having a broad global perspective on life, an awareness of other languages, an expectation of meeting and knowing persons from other cultures. (However I am) finding that helping her with homework is a bit trickier, as I personally do not speak Spanish."
Benefits to brain
Robert Young heads the International School of Tucson. Young is originally from New Zealand.
"The research shows that there are two ways of making young children's brains bigger. One is by learning music, and the other is by learning a language. Up until about age 7, there is a part of the brain that is pre-allocated to language. If you start stimulating it by learning other languages, the brain makes use of it. If you don't, then the brain reallocates it to something else or shuts it down. So that's one sense it just makes people brainier.
"Secondly, it's useful in daily life or travel or business. Thirdly, it just gives you access to other things. For example, if you can read classical Arabic or Chinese, you can read 5,000 years or more of literature.
"(From) birth to age 3, the brain is predisposed toward sounds, particularly music and language. Then, roughly age 3 to age 7, part of the brain is ready to receive linguistic input, and that is the critical period. After age 7, as the brain starts to reallocate that space or close it down, it becomes increasingly difficult for most people to learn languages. And one problem in this country is that most (foreign language) programs don't start until high school, which is too late. To do it properly, you really need to learn it much younger.
"If you look at places where people have two or three or four languages, it starts in elementary school, either as a foreign language program or as an immersion program. Or it starts in the home.
"We need a philosophical shift. The country has to see (learning a second language) as useful, necessary, important. And following from that becomes making space for it, funding it, finding the teachers for it.
"It's part of a whole discussion that needs to be held if it's going to change."
A mother's wish
Alexandra Cheshire, parent to Vienna and August, was raised by her Austrian mother to speak both German and English. She hopes to pass German on to her own children.
"Right before I knew I wanted to have children, something just kind of clicked in my head that I wanted to teach them German. I had never thought about doing that. My German is pretty fluent, but it's not perfect. I make mistakes. I didn't know if I was going to screw them up or screw their German up.
"When Vienna came, I felt a little awkward at first, but by the 10th day she was here, I started speaking German with her. I've spoken it to her since birth. Just from me speaking to her, she understood everything.
"And then going to the International School has helped her a lot too, because she's expanded her vocabulary.
"It's really interesting to see, because I'm just so much more confident now about speaking to my children in German. And August speaks more than Vienna did. She understood everything and she would throw in German words, but he speaks many more words in a sentence.
"It's just amazing. They don't have that struggle that you have when you're an adult or in high school, struggling with verb conjugation. It's just so much more natural. She'll speak German to me and then turn around and speak to someone else and translate it into English for my husband. And it's just because of their age. It just doesn't seem to faze them.
"We spent a few weeks in Germany, and Vienna got to go to a German kindergarten.
"I think she thinks (learning German) is kind of fun and exciting.
"It's almost like a game to her."
Coming Wednesday
Find more stories about Tucson in the newest edition of 110 magazine Wednesday in the Arizona Daily Star.
Tucson youths write the stories about their city: Read how acting can empower you to find empathy for others and strength for yourself. Learn how a young Muslim woman wrestles with her faith and what wearing the traditional head scarf means in America after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And understand what it feels like to realize you don't belong in your own body.
These stories and more are part of the 110 magazine, with stories and photos by the Voices: Tucson Youth Tell Tucson's Stories documentary arts program.
● Alexandria Whitehead, 15, of Tucson High Magnet School, wrote this for Voices and the 110 ˚ magazine that will appear in Wednesday's Arizona Daily Star.