By Sarah Swenson, Assistant News Editor
Learning Spanish should be mandatory in school. Teaching a second language in all schools across the United States is an obvious step that I can’t believe hasn’t been implemented yet. Most countries in Europe have done it. Globally, we are 50% bilingual, but in the United States, we are only 20% bilingual. Bilingualism increases all forms of executive function, increases social, academic, and professional opportunities, and generally enriches our society.
Most countries in Europe require students to learn a foreign language, and 20 even require students to learn a third language. Before they graduate from primary school, 73% of European students are learning English, and that number rises to more than 90% in secondary school. Children generally begin learning their second language between the ages of 6 and 9, with some starting even younger, like Belgium, where children begin learning their second language at three years old. But in the United States, a staggeringly small 20 percent of all students grade K-12 are enrolled in foreign language classes. We have the best colleges in the world, and yet only 7 percent of college students are taking a second language. You would think a country so excelling in academics would have a strong education in all areas, but we have fallen down on the job remarkably when it comes to foreign languages.
The reason for this deficit stretches beyond a lack of enthusiasm for teaching or learning foreign languages to a hatred of those who do speak other languages; a twisted, severely detrimental manifestation of nationalism. In this country, as of 2020, 18.5% of the population of the US is Hispanic or Latinx. It is our largest racial or ethnic group excepting white people (note that those who self identify as Hispanic may also identify themselves as any other race, allowing them to be counted as both). 13.5% of the population speaks Spanish as their first language, making it the second most spoken language in the country, behind English. The Spanish-speaking population in the US is rapidly growing, especially in states near the Mexican border. Yet despite these facts, 22% of Hispanics say they have been taunted or harassed for speaking Spanish in public. Hatred of those who are different, in this case by speaking a language besides English, is in itself stupid, but as it bleeds into our education system, it also inhibits the intelligence of every growing mind in the country.
Learning a second language increases the flexibility and strength of the mind, especially the growing mind. By teaching students a second language early, we could increase their ability to think for their entire lives and help them avoid health complications like mental degeneration. Bilingual minds are capable of handling all the nuances of two languages at once, and bilingualism has been proven to increase ability to switch attention from one area to another with control, and working memory, the three main skills that make up executive function. This is how we process higher-level thought. Measuring intelligence in the way tests like the IQ test do–testing on memory, spatial working, recognition of patterns, etc.– bilingualism shows tremendous benefits. Those who have learned multiple languages also have a higher density of grey matter, a major component of the central nervous system. Higher grey matter density in the brain means more information can be received and transmitted more quickly. Mastery of a second language also slows the deterioration of grey matter in the elderly, delaying the onset of dementia symptoms by up to five years.
Bilingualism increases mental flexibility by stretching the way you use words to process everything around yourself. Every word you learn helps you evaluate the world differently, and the differing organization of each language also adds to the number of ways you can see the world. For instance, English distinguishes between pink and red, which are just dark and light red, while it leaves blue as just blue- light and dark. However, if you learned Italian, you could call light blue ‘celeste’, and dark blue ‘blu’. If you have spent time on Pinterest, you have probably seen an aesthetic picture laid out behind a word, below it, a definition. These words usually do not translate perfectly into English. An example of this in Spanish is the word ‘estrenar’, which means to do or wear something for the very first time. Something that would be a sentence in English, you can now capture as a word in Spanish. A common example of these changes in thinking is the difference between variations of the meaning of the word ‘love’. Many languages–including Spanish–have multiple words for love, depending on the intent. ‘Te amo’ means ‘I love you’ in a deep, usually romantic, way. ‘Te quiero’ also means ‘I love you’, but it is more casual, shared between friends even if you are not extremely close. Learning to think about words in different ways strengthens the brain and increases how a person can think in areas extending far beyond language.
Teaching a second language should start in school because the younger you are, the easier it is to pick up a second language, and the more the shape of your neural network is affected by it. Obviously, challenging yourself to learn something new is always beneficial, but learning languages is easiest before you have turned 18, and if you want to achieve complete mastery of the language, you should start learning before then. Children should begin to learn their second language before the age of 10 to increase the chances they will become a fluent speaker. As I mentioned previously, most European countries start the teaching of a second language between the ages of 6 and 9. I think a Spanish class should be implemented in every school in the US starting in first grade, with supplementary education and encouragement to explore the language before then.
I think that addressing the concern that is inevitably raised when discussing this subject is here necessary. Some people who oppose mandatory second language education programs do so because they worry that English will cease to be the primary language of the country. Firstly, I would like to point out that while English is the most spoken language in the country, it is not our national language. We do not have an official language, just as we have no official religion, skin color, or set of beliefs ingrained via a single publishing company or newspaper, and that is intentional. We are a plural nation of diverse people, and there is no reason that plurality should not be reflected in the languages we teach in school. Accepting this, children would still be learning English. Every child who would have considered it their first language before would still do so; Every other subject would still be taught in English, their home language would be English, and they would probably still converse with most of their friends in English.
A second language should be taught in every classroom exactly so students have the opportunity to speak to their friends in another language if they choose to. Children who do not speak English are often socially isolated at school, either through ‘choice’ when they find no one who speaks their language, or through physical separation when they enter into ‘pull out’ programs like the ESL program at our high school. ESL programs, and their equivalent across the country, are very important, but students in these programs should not have to be isolated at lunch, or after school in clubs and sports as well. The large majority of students in the Nantucket Public School system’s ESL program are native Spanish-speakers. A student body who were all fluent in English and Spanish would not have this conflict of loneliness.
Teaching students a second language from a young age would also allow them to voluntarily take a third language in high school or higher education if they wanted to. This would encourage even more communication between children with different native languages, and, of course, acquisition of knowledge and opportunities for the students ambitious enough to try to master a third language. Being fluent in Spanish opens up pathways to similar romance languages, like Portuguese, Italian, French, or Romanian. Multilingualism helps you in whatever field you wish to enter. Spanish, as the second most popular language in the country, is the obvious choice. At the moment, if you want to learn a practical language, you will probably opt to learn Spanish. It increases your ability to communicate with others in the workplace, be-it with coworkers or customers. You can also gather information from sources of two languages instead of just one.
Implementing the mandatory teaching of Spanish in every US school is beneficial to all, and I believe we are well past the point where it became obvious.