Gerber: Les langues étrangères sont indispensables

From a very young age, my mother saw fit to introduce me to rudimentary bilingualism.

Like most American children I learned English, but my mother who was a speech pathologist also taught me the basics of another form of communication: sign language. She was several years ahead of a trend that is now slowly sweeping the nation: teaching one's infant "baby signs." Instead of just sitting there wailing helplessly, the child can produce a simplified hand motion requiring only basic motor skills that signifies the reason for their distress: a sign for ‘food' if they're hungry, sign for ‘drink' if they're thirsty, and so on.

I went on later in life to take an American Sign Language course in high school where I furthered my knowledge of the language beyond the basic conversation skills my mother taught me. To my delight, I was able to pick up the new skills with a degree of ease that would have been lacking had I not already been familiar with interpreting these hand motions.

This "ease" I enjoyed was a remnant of the fact that I began learning a second language as a young toddler and child. This age range is significant for all developing children; it is the time when you're learning how to crawl, walk, eat and perform all sorts of other autonomous abilities. It is an especially important period concerning language acquisition because the brain is at its prime for this process. Children's minds can grasp a simple mastery of a language in just a few years, but it takes the adult brain as many as five to ten years to achieve fluency. Studies have also shown that from the age of infancy to 24 months, children who are bilingual have benefits, including improved attention capabilities, that set them apart from their unilingual peers.

My question is that if early childhood is such a prime time for acquiring a second language, why are most public school children still unilingual until they are much older, if they learn a second language at all? I did not begin to learn Spanish until seventh grade, and continued to take classes through 12th grade. How much less time would it have taken me to learn this language if I had started as a child? Research indicates that it may have taken just two to three years.

It is uncommon to find a public school student that continues learning a second language for more than four years. Many in New York state discontinue this education once they have taken the Regents exam and achieved the title of being "proficient," only to learn upon entrance into college that many colleges require one year past the Regents level.

Considering all the benefits and advantages of learning a language as a child, why do we continue to put off and hinder this process? In our complex, interconnected world today, we can't afford to let language barriers encumber global communication.