Stateside
5:38 pm
Mon April 1, 2013

Should foreign language be a high school requirement?

Michigan high schools currently require students to take foreign language in grades nine through twelve. Well, that might change soon.

Republican State Representative Phil Potvin of Cadillac is pushing a bill that would make studying a foreign language and algebra II merely an option for students.

Last year House Bill 4102 was heard in the 96th Legislature, but wasn't voted on. Potvin expects the bill to be voted on this year.

"The real reason to do this is that our kids have such a tight curriculum now. [This bill] would allow them some choices."

Potvin argued that making foreign language and algebra II an option would free up space in a student's schedule and could allow them to expand their education at a career tech center.

He believes that allowing students to learn a trade while still in high school would allow them to "be a very positive citizen in our community."

But if schools allow this option in high schools, what will that mean for future generations who choose trade school over foreign language?

This theoretical, divided society already exists, according to Potvin.

And for students who don't learn a foreign language? Potvin said that's not a problem either.

"What's the language in America? I believe it's still English."

Potvin emphasized that the most important aspect of the bill is that foreign language and algebra II wouldn't be cut, they would just become optional for students.

"You want to take a language? You have the opportunity to do that, but the mandate for students to take a language or algebra two is the wrong thing. We're all about choices, not about mandates."

For many of us looking back, it's difficult to know if we would have chosen to take classes that may have seemed less interesting to us - like Latin or math.

These days, Potvin said, if you don't take certain subjects while you're in school, you can always go back to school later in life.

"If you want to take Spanish later because you're living in Arizona or Texas or Florida, there are options [to do that]. I'm trying to provide more opportunities for students to do what they want to do instead of taking a language that they may never use in the course of their lifetime."

The argument for learning a foreign language

Emily Spinelli is the executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.

Spinelli said that the vast majority of students who will continue school at the college or university level will continue taking language classes, but that learning a foreign language is important for students at the trade school level as well.

"We are in a global economy and we need students to be ready to fill jobs within it," she said. "To work in a global economy, these students are going to need high literacy skills, and language learning improves their literacy skills, not just in the language they're learning, but also in their first language."

Spinelli also added that language learning helps develop critical thinking skills and cultural sensitivity which are both increasingly important as Michigan becomes more diverse.

Though it may be difficult for small rural schools to offer multiple foreign languages, Spinelli emphasized that there are many routes that Michigan schools can take, such as dual-enrollment in nearby community colleges and online language classes.

"It's never too late to learn a second language," Spinelli said.

- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom