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What Your Kid Probably Isn't Learning In School

Photograph by Twenty20

Languages are a tricky business. Although English is the dominant language for a majority of people living in the U.S., you would be hard-pressed not to be able to name at least five other languages spoken by a significant number of people across the country.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I heard Spanish and Korean more often than English in my neighborhood. While living in Seattle, Chinese and Japanese were a normal part of my day working downtown. Now that I am in Washington, D.C., home to embassies from all over the world and large communities of Latin Americans and Ethiopian immigrants, I hear at least five different languages just on the walk to school. I love this mixture of cultures and languages. I crave them. And yet, I feel so disconnected, since I can only speak one language—English.

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Sadly, the U.S. education system has not fully embraced that we are a multilingual society. Even American Sign Language is not universally taught. My kids are being left behind when their counterparts in Europe and Asia are speaking at least two, if not four or five languages, by the time they graduate high school. We weren't able to lottery into the only public bilingual elementary school in our area, and we aren't able to afford a bilingual private school. My high school Spanish skills can only get me so far when it comes to teaching my boys, so I had to find alternatives.

Thankfully, the PTA at our school is very active and is helping parents through the language hurtle. I recently received a note home that after-school classes in Spanish, German and French would be offered one day a week. I jumped at this chance. It would cost me $200 for the semester, but that was better than a private tutor and other private after-school classes. What my son learns in class I could help to reinforce at home. This may even prompt me to start up my own language learning again. Those Rosetta Stone discs I bought six years ago have been collecting dust long enough.

We need to be able to speak many languages in order to, among other advantages, converse with those we meet at home and when we travel.

Even though they probably won't speak five languages, if I can give my boys a leg up in some way in our language-deprived education system, so they can speak to their peers when we travel and also have a head start on language learning before high school, I will give it to them.

I will always take advantage of the after-school classes that are within my budget and fun for my son, since his friends from school are there with him. Peer pressure in Kindergarten may just encourage him to speak to his native Spanish-speaking classmates. It may also give me the courage to practice with their mothers, which let's just admit right now, is pretty scary. We adults don't like to look like idiots, but inevitably we will.

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The end goal, though, is what is important. We need to be able to speak many languages in order to, among other advantages, converse with those we meet at home and when we travel. Hopefully, my son will thank me one day for making him stay late at school one day a week.

So far I hear no complaints. Phew!

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