At a Sept. 11 national town meeting, "Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century: Foreign Language and Early Education," former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon urged parents across the country to press the case for foreign language programs in the elementary schools to school boards, state legislators and Congress.
The town meeting, held in Washington, was sponsored by the National Foreign Language Center at Hopkins. Simon is the chair of the NFLC's advisory board.
In opening the meeting, NFLC director David Maxwell noted that the United States is the only developed country in the world that does not expect graduates of its schools to speak more than one language, and he emphasized the importance of beginning a cohesive and focused language learning career as early as possible in a student's education.
The heart of the meeting was a discussion among a panel of experts and the audience, which consisted of foreign language educators, school and system administrators, and foreign language students and their parents.
The panel identified a number of obstacles to expanding and improving language learning in grades kindergarten through eight. Among these were lack of public understanding of the global reality of knowing both English and another language; misperceptions about early language learning; the country's "monolingual ethos;" parents who do not understand the current sophistication and effectiveness of language teaching; a shortage of qualified teachers in foreign languages; and constraints on budgets and scheduling.
Suggestions for responses to these issues included a campaign to "demystify" foreign language learning, make the case for the importance of knowing more than one language, address misconceptions regarding language teaching and learning, and highlight effective, successful models of language programs; visible, vocal and authoritative national leadership on the importance of language competence; improvement in and expansion of pre- and in-service teacher training programs to develop a larger and more qualified corps of foreign-language teachers; and a coordinated plan of legislation at state and federal levels to support the expansion and improvement of language learning in the schools.