Multilingualism Madness

Let's not overlook English for other languages

I remember an interesting high school conference I attended to discuss my oldest son’s grades.

I had all the usual feelings — nervousness (How was he doing?), anticipation (Maybe he was doing really well!) and curiosity (Who are these people who spend the bulk of the day with my kid?).

My son was doing great in Spanish with an A, but not so well in English, with a C. His teachers seemed fine with that. I was puzzled. Shouldn’t we make sure my son was doing as well at mastering his native tongue as he was with a second language?

Compelling new research is showing that being bilingual, or multilingual, has tremendous benefits for students. Ester de Jong, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Florida, noted in an article for “The Conversation” that young bilingual students are known to be “flexible thinkers and better problem solvers.”

What about the importance of learning to correctly speak and write your native language — in my son’s case, good ol’ English?

She said bilingual workers have an edge in the labor market, and show higher earning capabilities than those who speak only one language. What’s more, knowing more than one language can  delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, she points out.

Clearly, the brain benefits of multilingualism are obvious.

We live in an increasingly multicultural, multilingual America. In a recent study conducted in Florida, more than 70 percent of respondents agreed that all students should learn a second language. To that end, a new teaching model called TWI, or “Two-Way Immersion,” is gaining popularity. Students whose first language is English, for example, are paired with students whose first language is, say, Spanish. In schools that practice TWI, regular course — math, science, and language arts — are all taught in two languages.

The benefits seem enormous. Students enrolled in TWI programs consistently outperform students enrolled in regular education programs, de Jong reports. TWI students perform higher on standardized tests in reading and math.

A recent study in North Carolina related that black students who were enrolled in TMI programs were one to two years ahead of their non-TWI peer group in mathematics.

To some people, proper English grammar is so Reagan, so shackling … so pre-feminism!

Back to a situation like my son’s, however. What about the importance of learning to correctly speak and write your native language — in my son’s case, good ol’ English?

According to the Everyday Feminism blog, to suggest English proficiency over proficiency in other languages may be “grammar snobbery.” In a blog post, the writer relates that “prescriptive grammar” — honest, correct and acceptable grammar — is oppressive. “Descriptive grammar” (incorrect grammar) is correct because that is the basic purpose of language: to communicate.

To some, English grammar is so Reagan, so shackling … so pre-feminism!

Proper grammar is taking some hits these days. Texting brings technology users a comfortable relationship with shorthand (“u” for “you,” for example), the rise of the emoticon replaces written thought with a tiny cartoon, and the interest in multilingualism pushes the study of English farther into the background.

After all, there are only so many hours in a school day.

Is there still even a compelling need for the English language, properly spoken and written? Yes, if you look in the right places.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Language. Here’s Why,” author Kyle Wien writes: “Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin.”

Similarly, in an article for the Center for Innovative Research and Thinking, Grand Canyon University teacher Eric Nordin says: “Given that we, along with our students, function in the online realm, the written word is our voice. Therefore, poorly written material is analogous to poor speech or interacting with someone who lacks interpersonal communication skills. Good points go unheeded when poorly written. Even if one has something meaningful to communicate, if written poorly, the words will fail to have the desired effect.”

So in the real world, whether you go to college or get a job, English grammar — written and spoken — matters when it comes to success. To mistake the importance of any attained multilingualism as equal to the importance of competency and prowess in the English language is a route to failure.

My son brought his English grades up. Today, as a big contributor to a small Nashville-area business, he only rarely needs to speak Spanish. But every day he needs to competently write and speak in English.

I’m grateful that as his parents we made the study of his own language non-negotiable.

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