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Language education is critical for developing brains

Last modified: 1/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
Peter Mehegan, a longtime public school French teacher, wrote the following letter to the House Education Committee, which is considering legislation that would remove foreign language from the definition of an adequate education.

We are language-learning machines. Brain study has shown that the greatest amount of the brain activity happens in the earliest years of the child. His primary activity, in which he is practically guaranteed success by design, is language acquisition. The child, without teacher, text or test, succeeds at learning a difficult language in self-initiated, self-directed study. Without help, this is a feat that will never repeat itself. Where success was once guaranteed with absolute assurance when he was little, the child soon learns that learning language is not only difficult but, worse, not essential.

What is the point of learning another language?

As with muscle, that part of the brain most used for language learning will atrophy over time for lack of use. What was used with great success when we were 2 and 3, and what was most productive in us, falls into a state of neglect that gets accepted as normal by a society in which knowing one language is perceived as 'knowing enough to get by.' But is it?

It is not without reason that, before the 20th century, a child's first experience was not English, math and science but music, art and language, specifically Greek and Latin, because everything important ever expressed was expressed in these disciplines. Grammar, logic and rhetoric were primary goals. These three disciplines, called trivium, were recognized as fundamental to future learning. The questions of generations past generated the curiosity required for inspired study of math and science, which thus flowed naturally from the study of language and art.

Today, enlightenment has too often made light of the contribution language learning played in the early development of the child. You, who have been granted charge of creating choices, choose to demote second-language learning to quaint curiosity, an elective if the funds exist, dedicating at most a few weeks in the first eight years to the study, not of language per se, but of language in context of culture. In other words, the goal is not to teach a new language to use, thus deepening the knowledge of our own, but to inspire respect and tolerance to cultures other than our own, a thing that cannot properly be appreciated without acquisition of the language of that culture.

A language teacher's daunting task is clearly defined. We might well be their last chance to learn that language learning is still essential for brain-development.

Students should know that their study of every discipline is enhanced by the study of another language, and true educators should know why. Through language, a student learns to make connections within the framework of his own language, to its history, his history and the history of language. Students learn new ways to express complex thought, and they learn at last that others, around the world, have felt what they feel, known what they know, and have explored realms and possibilities that their own minds have not yet accessed.

With all of this so evident, it's striking but sadly not surprising that a handful of legislators want to remove the study of language and art from what they call 'an adequate education.'

If the proof is in the fruit, perhaps it's time these legislators joined us back in the classroom.

(Peter L. Mehegan lives in Pembroke.)


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