In the Americas, right to learn a second language gains support

Why We Wrote This

In the U.S., debate over access to a second language is common. But the country’s neighbors to the north and south are also increasingly grappling with the issue. How might thought on the subject be changing?

Chris Wattie/Reuters
Teacher Kathy Stauch's ninth-grade French immersion geography class gathers at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa in 2015. A rights-based movement for second languages has grown across the Americas. Advocates put foreign languages on par with math or science.

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A rights-based movement for second languages has grown across the Americas, where many see foreign languages as important today as learning math or science, even as demand has in some cases exacerbated inequalities they were intended to correct.

In the U.S. – once notorious for its monolingual culture and where bilingual education for Spanish-speaking immigrants became a political minefield – immersion programs are on the rise. In Canada, where French and English are official languages but the majority of the population speaks English, demand for French immersion programs has skyrocketed. And in Mexico, the Constitution was changed this month by a vote in the Senate to include guarantees for multi-linguistic education – including indigenous and foreign languages.

Mexico’s move to amend the Constitution makes the idea of language learning as a “right” potentially more enforceable. “It changes the standards the government can be held accountable to, and what families and young people can command in court in terms of what they should have access to,” says Jennifer O’Donoghue, general director of Mexicanos Primero, an education advocacy group.

A group of elementary-school students sit in tightly-packed rows on an early spring afternoon, at a school in Hermosillo in northern Mexico, pens poised while they listen to a recorded conversation in English.

“Can I ask you some questions about books?” one of the audio characters says, slowly annunciating each word, as the kids take notes.

This English class is more than just an enrichment exercise for students who live 165 miles from the U.S. border in the state of Sonora. It could better position them for higher education opportunities and higher-paid jobs. And a growing number of educators and advocates say all students should be entitled to second-language acquisition. 

“Learning English [should be] the right of Mexican students, but right now it’s a privilege for those who can afford private instruction,” says Jennifer O’Donoghue, general director of Mexicanos Primero, an education advocacy group that published a groundbreaking report in 2015 on English-language learning as a right.

The question has been up for debate in Mexico, where the Constitution was changed this month by a vote in the Senate to include guarantees for multi-linguistic education – including indigenous and foreign languages. By far the widest impact for the latter would be the expansion of English as a second language across schools in Mexico.

A rights-based movement for second languages has grown across the Americas, where many see foreign languages as important today as learning math or science, even as demand in some cases has exacerbated inequalities they were intended to correct. In the United States – once notorious for its monolingual culture and where bilingual education for Spanish-speaking immigrants became a political minefield – immersion programs are on the rise. In Canada, where French and English are official languages but the majority of the population speaks English, demand for French immersion programs has skyrocketed. 

“In the 21st century with so much internationalism, we really need to be giving all children the opportunity to learn another language,” says Fred Genesee, an expert on dual-language education in Canada at McGill University in Montreal. “We’re not talking about icing on the cake anymore. We’re talking about a life skill that actually gives these kids a real advantage.”

The language of the global economy

The demand for English across the globe has swept into public school systems, says Kate Bell, who works on the annual English Proficiency Index from EF, a business that offers English-language training. The language is seen today as “a basic skill that everyone needs,” and not just for those who can afford private school or tutoring. That’s long been part of the zeitgeist in Europe, which ranks higher than other regions in the index from EF, but the thinking is gaining ground globally.

Since 2004, Latin America, which ranks lower than Europe and Asia on the EF index, has been moving toward incorporating English language instruction into public school classrooms, creating national government policies and establishing that English instruction is mandatory by law to address some of the access challenges.

In Mexico, 70% of primary school students, mostly in rural and low-income areas, don’t have access to English at school, despite the fact that nearly all top public universities have an English-language requirement.

Nearly 70% of executives from global companies around the world say they prioritize proficiency in English among their employees in order to expand their businesses – but it’s challenging to find workers who meet those qualifications, according to a 2017 study from the Inter-American Dialogue. Those who speak both English and Spanish in Mexico earn nearly 30% more, on average, than non-English speakers.

Mexico’s move to amend the Constitution makes the idea of language learning as a “right” potentially more enforceable. “It changes the standards the government can be held accountable to, and what families and young people can command in court in terms of what they should have access to,” says Ms. O’Donoghue.

Where English is spoken

The fervor for second languages is not limited to English, as research shows a host of cognitive and social benefits of speaking more than one’s own native tongue. The U.S. lags other countries. A Pew Research study last year showed 20% of American students learning a second language, compared with a median of 92% for European students. 

That has started to change, with the growth of bilingual programs, but it has been uneven across the states, says Howie Berman, the executive director at The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and he says that puts too many students at a disadvantage as the U.S. grows more multicultural. His group released a survey this month of U.S. firms saying they see a gap in supply for employees who speak more than English, even for those firms operating domestically. 

“If we don’t view [second-language learning] as a right we are going to fall behind, because other countries are viewing it that way, and we’re not going to be able to compete with them,” he says. “It’s really a critical skill and not just a nice to have skill.”

Growing pains in Canada

Canada has more experience with fostering bilingual education. It started with a French immersion program in the 1960s in Montreal for English-speakers who were a minority in the French-speaking province of Quebec. The program, and its various spinoffs, has since grown country-wide into a lauded national model.

Still, French immersion has been experiencing growing pains. It is not compulsory, and where demand outstrips supply in school districts, frustration has followed. It has also inadvertently created divides. Studies have shown, for example, that more high-achieving students, whether by self-selection or on recommendation, and those from higher socio-economic brackets participate in French immersion programs. Those with learning challenges are more represented in English-only streams. That creates what critics call de facto segregation in the public system. It’s generated larger questions about equity and access in a country that values bilingualism, especially at the upper echelons of government.

The experience in New Brunswick, Canada’s only official bilingual province, is telling. George Daley, president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association, who supports French programming, points to an auditor general’s report in the province last year that showed what they long suspected: 93% of students on personalized learning plans, or in need of special help, are not in immersion classrooms.

“French immersion is very important,” Mr. Daley says, “but so are all those other students who are not in French immersion. So if we’re going to create a situation where we’re creating an unbalanced learning environment then we have a responsibility to put the resources into those other classrooms to guarantee a fair learning environment for those students.”

French immersion, fiercely defended, has generated many questions – and resentments. For some the answer lies in scaling up French immersion and giving all equal access. But that’s been a chief challenge. A Canadian federal report this winter identified a shortage of teachers as a key obstacle as demand for French immersion grows.

Teacher supply is, in fact, the key challenge that spans the globe, with a dearth of staff qualified in teaching and/or the second language a stubborn obstacle. In Latin America, qualified teaching staff remains one of the reasons that strong legal frameworks there have not yet translated into strong implementation, says Sarah Stanton, an education program associate at the Inter-American Dialogue.

That leaves many students and families with a growing sense of what their rights are, but not a viable pathway to attain them. “If you say ‘we are going to do this bilingual program’ but don’t have teachers to teach the kids,” says Ms. Bell, the index author, “you are bilingual in name only.”

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