Bilingual Means A Better Opportunity For Students

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Among the regrets we have when we travel around America, or to foreign countries, is that we don’t know a second language. We’ve picked up a smattering of words to get by in Spanish, but the ability to converse is far beyond our skills.

In Benson High School, we took a couple years of French, which was followed by three quarters of college French. We still recognize words, but the verbal skills have faded away. It is difficult to maintain knowledge of a language when no one around you speaks it. Inevitably, what was learned fades from disuse.

Spanish would be the most practical language for many Americans to learn, even here in rural Minnesota. We have a growing number of Hispanic immigrants living among us. They are working in businesses, opening businesses of their own, are customers of our establishments, friends with our children and grandchildren in school, and are often people we would like to get to know better.

Many who were immigrants are now America citizens as are their children and grandchildren. Yet, they still speak the language of their home country as they talking with friends and family they left behind. Our great-grandfather’s family came to the United States from Norway, and our grandfather didn’t speak English until he was five years old. To fit in, to be accepted and to get ahead in American society, he quickly learned English. Our father spoke little Norwegian and those of us in the third generation might know a couple words, mostly the names of foods we eat at smorgasbords.

If he were a young man growing up in America today it is likely that he would have retained the use of the Norwegian language to talk on the phone or to use Skype for a “face-to-face” conversations with family and friends back in the home country. It is possible that our father would have spoken the language and that we might have learned it as well. However, in America, languages from the home country were shed as people lost connection to their land of origin and adapted themselves to English speaking America.

There are those in this country, many of whom oppose a more open arms approach to immigration, who bristle when they hear foreign languages spoken in public. Some even shout at the speakers to “Go Home!” though they are citizens and are living the American Dream in their new home country. People with these attitudes are becoming ever more distant from the reality of America’s growing diversity and the strength it brings to our country.

Minnesota is now embracing its bilingual and multilingual high school graduates with an honor that celebrates their proficiency in languages. As they walked across the stage to accept their diplomas this spring, some students were given a bi-literacy seal on it from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE.) With the distinction comes the possibility to earn up to four semesters of college language credits that are accepted by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. With many college degrees requiring language courses, this high school head start provides them is a considerable advantage. A test is administered to ensure the students are proficient in the second language.

“The study of world languages prepares students to be linguistically and culturally competent and to communicate, work and collaborate effectively with people of diverse backgrounds at home and abroad,” the MDE says of the program. “Speaking the language of others is essential for understanding their culture, and perspectives and for the global competency students need to be prepared for life and work in the 21st century.”

Minnesota high schools are educating students who speak nearly 100 different languages.

The recognition also gives students who might be thought of lacking by others because their native tongue may not be English.

“We’re trying to use it as an imperfect tool to get some academic recognition and possibly some college credit for these students who are often viewed as being at a deficit,” said Marni Ginther, who teaches Spanish at Edison High School in Minneapolis, told the Associated Press. “They’re often defined within the system by what they don’t have, what they don’t bring. And we’re trying to create a space where they can have the opportunity to bring something.”

If students in rural Minnesota schools aren’t given the opportunity to learn other languages, it creates one more glaring disparity between what kids in the metropolitan areas are offered and what our children get in school. Providing language classes can be a challenge for rural schools dealing with declining enrollment and extremely tight budgets.

Minnesota’s Legislature must ensure adequate funding of rural schools to ensure our students are prepared to enter a global workforce. It benefits metropolitan legislators to support additional rural school funding – they get far too many of our young people to fill their jobs, buy their homes, and raise their families in their communities. Consider it an investment on their part to support a rich and diverse rural education system.


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