Students in the Wilkes County schools are left at a disadvantage by not having foreign language classes in elementary and middle school grades.

Numerous studies have shown that elementary school is the best time to begin studying a foreign language because children at this age have better mental flexibility and other skills that promote language proficiency.

Wilkes students are far from alone in not being offered foreign language classes in elementary and middle school grades.

The Pew Research Center reported that as of 2017, only 20 percent of students in K-12 in the United States were in foreign language classes.

U.S. schools in general are decreasing rather than increasing opportunities to learn foreign languages, despite increased global connectedness.

The number of middle and elementary schools (public  and private combined) offering foreign languages dropped from 75% in 1997 to 58% in 2008. For public and private elementary schools, it fell from 31% to 25% in the same period. The percentages of public elementary and middle schools alone offering foreign language classes are significantly lower. Not too many years ago, foreign languages were taught in at least some Wilkes elmentary schools.

There also has been a steep decline in foreign language instruction in America’s colleges and universities.

As of 2016, an average of 92% of K-12 students in European nations were learning a foreign language. Across Europe, students typically begin studying a foreign language as a required school subject between ages 6 and 9.

North Carolina is among 16 states with no foreign language requirements for graduating from high school, but two foreign language credits are required for admission to a university in the UNC system.

Ten states and the District of Columbia have foreign language graduation requirements for high school students and 24 states have graduation requirements that can be met with either foreign language classes or other non-language coursework.

Budget constraints and a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers for K-12 schools are the primary reasons more foreign language classes aren’t offered in schools in the U.S.

Dr. Joe Bullis, director of Federal Programs/Middle School Instruction/Cultural Arts for the Wilkes schools, said many of the foreign language teachers in the Wilkes high schools are secured through the Visiting International Faculty program. This program brings teachers from other countries, but they can only stay a few years.

It’s widely recognized that foreign language proficiency is important because of the increasingly integrated global business community and changing demographics across the U.S.

Increasingly, American communities of all sizes are becoming multi-lingual and multi-cultural.

Being multilingual can put a person miles ahead of his or her peers when applying for a job or seeking a promotion. It can provide additional job security and advancement opportunities.

Research has identified mental benefits of learning a foreign language, especially if started at an early age. It helps increase intelligence, keeps the mind sharp and buffers the brain against effects of aging.

The Wilkes County Schools Strategic Goals for 2013-1018 call for having every student excel “in rigorous and relevant core curriculum that reflects what students need to know and demonstrate in a global 21st Century environment, including mastery of languages….”

There clearly are compelling reasons to offer opportunities to learn foreign languages in elementary and middle school grades.

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