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The Study of Foreign Languages

How do America’s schools rate, compared to other countries, in the teaching of foreign languages? Sadly, Americans have historically put very little emphasis on this part of the curriculum. At DEA, we have traditionally offered Spanish 1 in the 10th grade and Spanish 2 in the 11th grade. In recent years, there has been no foreign language study in elementary or middle school. While this pattern offers students the minimum number of credits for entrance into our state’s university system, it is not enough to prepare them for success in the modern world.

Modern technology, such as functional MRI, has allowed scientists to observe brain activity to better understand how language skills are acquired. They have determined that early language study is critical to later language proficiency because the brain cells responsible for language acquisition must be “activated” through use at an early age – or be lost forever. This explains the difficulty of trying to learn a new language in adulthood. Most adults cannot shed the accent of their native tongue or regional dialect. A common theme of recent discoveries is the need for more study of languages and the earlier in life the better.

While we cannot currently afford to hire another foreign language teacher, we can provide foreign language exposure in the Lower School by using an online Spanish curriculum and other technology based resources. The online curriculum has components which are perfectly appropriate for our children and require only an internet connection and a big-screen monitor. Bringing these resources into our classrooms is one of the academic improvements being implemented this year.

For longer range planning which will come through our self-study and strategic plan, I hope that technology-based foreign language study (for high school credit) will be introduced in middle school and become available throughout high school. Continuous study for many years is required to develop proficiency in a foreign language and progressive middle schools nationwide are introducing the first year of formal foreign language as early as 7th grade. On the other end, some universities are raising their entrance requirements to 3 high school credits in a foreign language. Both of these trends emphasize the need for students to be better prepared for the 21st Century by understanding another language, and thus the culture of those who speak that language.

One of our overarching goals should be to make sure DEA graduates are “second to none” in their preparation for higher education and for success in life. Proper attention to the study of languages is an important component of this principle. Additionally, a technology-based approach to studying Spanish provides the added benefit of our students becoming familiar with online learning – another skill they need for success in the 21st Century.

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