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American Kids Should All Learn Spanish

nicholas d kristof, bilingual education

Should bilingualism required?

When my family reluctantly moved to Southern California five years ago, back when my oldest was 4, one consolation prize was that at least our daughter would learn Spanish. In such a dense population from Mexico, and Central and South America, if she didn’t manage to pick it up on the playground, surely she’d learn it at school.

Well, not so fast. Of the dozens of local public schools, some serving more than 50 percent Spanish-speaking populations, just a few have developed a curriculum that expects elementary schools spend at least part of their days immersed in a language other than English.

It’s strange to me that, in 2010, where the need for bilingualism is everywhere — where the world is shrinking and shrinking — our education system continues to look at native Spanish-speakers as a burden and not a resource.

Sure, sure, school children in the U.S. should all learn to read and write in English. But why just the one? Why can’t they also learn to read and write in Spanish?

The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who knows a little something about living in the world and the power of education, sees another problem. Parents who do see a value in exposing their kids to another language choosing Mandarin. Not that there’s anything wrong with Mandarin. He speaks it, as does his wife. His own kids are learning it.

But Spanish. Spanish! In the U.S., Spanish is by far the better first second language.

Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it’s an everyday presence in the United States — and will become even more so. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.

As the United States increasingly integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives. More Americans will take vacations in Latin America, do business in Spanish, and eventually move south to retire in countries where the cost of living is far cheaper.

He speaks of Americans retiring to Costa Rica and Panama, and I honestly don’t care about that. Rather, the immediate and growing importance of the countries to the south of the U.S.

Spanish study does more than facilitate piña coladas on the beach at Cozumel. It’ll be a language of business opportunity in the coming decades. We need to turn our competitive minds not only east, but also south.

Well, exactly! I want my kids to be bilingual for all of those incalculable reasons: opens the mind for learning even more languages, broadens their world, blah, blah. But also? I want them to be competitive with their fellow Southern Californians (and North Carolinians, and southwest Kansans, and Texas. I mean, Texas, if you’ve got time to develop curriculum around creationism, aren’t their resources to teach bad science in Spanish?). These places are graduating students who are bilingual by virtue of the family they were born into and the American school system from which they emerged.

Help Wanted: must be fluent in Spanish? Check!

In the end, we lucked out. In our first Southern California year, that crucial school-search period, I met the right people who pointed me toward my few choices and, after a couple of months of hand-wringing, she secured a spot in one of not even a handful of public schools in our city that offers any kind of bilingual education.

My now 4th-grader, and her little sister in Kindergarten, spends at least half their school days learning in Spanish alongside plenty of kids who speak Spanish at home. Their school always has a long waiting list of English speaking families. But still? I’m always stunned that the list isn’t even longer.

Will your kids learn a language other than English in elementary school? Do you care? Do you speak other languages at home? Is Spanish one of them?

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