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January 20, 2022
From communicating with native speakers to future job offers, learning a world language opens the door to many opportunities. Because of this, Verry feels the ICCSD should place a greater emphasis on the importance of language.
“I’ve seen the benefits of knowing another language and I think a lot of people have, so I think there should be more of a focus on learning another language for the benefits [when you] go out into the real world,” Verry said.
Despite there being thousands of languages spoken globally, the ICCSD offers just Spanish and French as high school classes. ICCSD World Language Coordinator Carmen Gwenigale attributes this lack of diversity to the district’s limited budget.
“At one point in time, we had three languages, and due to budget cuts, we lost German. Teaching French and Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and German … would be ideal,” Gwenigale said.
Verry agrees having more languages to choose from would be beneficial, especially because it would allow students to pursue what they are interested in.
“Giving the students more options would help boost motivation to want to learn,” Verry said. “If they want to learn German, give them that opportunity, because you know they’ll work hard because they’re passionate about it.”
In addition, Paige Nierling ’23 thinks the ICCSD should offer American Sign Language as a class. Nierling learned ASL to better communicate with her brother, who is deaf, and believes sign language is an important skill.
“[My brother] is really lucky because he can read lips and has hearing aids, there’s so many people out there that [can’t] … sign language is just a good thing to know,” Nierling said.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, around one in eight people have some degree of hearing loss in both ears in the U.S., yet only 500,000 Americans know ASL. Nierling’s brother finished elementary school in the ICCSD before transferring to Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs. Through her brother, she saw how a more inclusive environment results in better experiences for those with trouble hearing.
“[At the] deaf school, he was just more included with people that he could relate to more. He had some bullying problems in elementary school because of his hearing problems and … it’s a difficult thing for anyone to go through anything like that,” Nierling said.
Aside from curriculum changes, some believe language learning itself should start earlier. According to a 2017 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, students in the U.S. have less access to foreign language instruction than students in other developed countries, and Americans are much less likely to be bi- or multilingual. This is sometimes attributed to the fact that many districts in the U.S. begin language instruction in junior high or high school.
“I would advocate for language learning at an earlier age,” Aparicio Ruiz said. “It has been proven basically that the earlier we start learning the language, the more it’s a part of our life and the easier [it becomes]. If it’s something that starts early on and continues throughout your education, I think there’s a lot of benefits.”
Younger children have greater brain plasticity, which is the ability of neural networks to change through growth and reorganization. This is why many other countries mandate foreign language learning very early on in students’ education. Data from Pew Research shows that almost all students in Europe study their first foreign language by age 9 and a second one later on. Because of this early start and a greater emphasis on language learning, 92% of European students know multiple languages. In contrast, this number is 20% in the U.S., which does not have a national requirement for language proficiency.
When we teach language, we’re not just teaching you how to communicate, but we’re also teaching you the culture. We’re teaching you how to be accepting of differences: different identities, different cultures, different ideas, and understand different perspectives.”
— Carmen Gwenigale, World Language Coordinator
“If students started learning languages from elementary, their brains are just so malleable at that time to take things in. The younger they are, the more open they are to embracing new concepts,” Gwenigale said. “At that place, too, they’re not afraid of failure. In high school, there’s so much attachment to grades and students shut down right away when they feel or see anything as a failure. In elementary, when the grade is not a factor, it’s just the learning that is the factor, there’s a higher probability for success.”
Not only does language learning open up new opportunities, it also enhances cognitive thinking. Due to the daily exercise of learning another language, multilingual children often have better memories than monolingual children. They outperform in terms of “metacognitive awareness, problem-solving, flexible thinking, and attention span,” according to Science Times.
Verry, who is co-president of the 1440 volunteering club, sees community-building as one of the most important benefits of learning a language from her time working at a nursing home.
“The importance of learning a language is not only to benefit you … but it’s also to benefit other people and can make sure they feel comfortable in the environment that they’re in,” Verry said. “Learning a language makes the community more tight-knit as more people can converse with each other.”
The learning process is a long journey. New vocabulary, grammatical systems and pronunciation pose obstacles for those looking to become fluent. However, Gwenigale believes the end result of learning a language is worth it.
“[We] really want students to embrace the idea of learning a language as a gift, and not as just a check-the-box [to get out of college language classes],” Gwenigale said. “When we teach language, we’re not just teaching you how to communicate, but we’re also teaching you the culture. We’re teaching you how to be accepting of differences: different identities, different cultures, different ideas, and understand different perspectives.”