Burbank: From start, kids should be learning two languages

By John Burbank

The clock is winding down on a second special session in Olympia, and legislators haven’t yet made serious progress on their paramount duty to amply fund K-12 education, despite an order from the state Supreme Court to do so. Meanwhile, newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal isn’t waiting around. He has a vision for high quality education that doesn’t abide by the status quo. He wants to do more than just talk about “world class” education: he wants to actually enable it for all kids in our state.

For example, Washington is an important part of the global economy, but our schooling tends to separate us from the global market by assuming our children and grandchildren will be monolingual, speaking only English. That might have been true fifty years ago, but it isn’t now. It not even true within our state, much less in the global community. Bilingual kids have a huge advantage in the world community and economy.

Reykdal proposes adding dual-language acquisition starting as early as kindergarten. It’s already happening at West View Elementary School in the Burlington-Edison school district. It’s how kids are taught — and teach each other — at Madison Elementary School in Mount Vernon. The kids buddy up, one from an English-speaking family and one from a Spanish speaking family. As the principal explained, “So in Spanish class, the Spanish-speaking kiddos are the experts, and they can help their English partners. And in English classes, the English-speaking kids are stronger, so they can help their partners, [as] a team.”

This year state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, shepherded House Bill 1445 through the Legislature, a bill designed to encourage dual-language learning in our public schools. HB 1445 only covers ten schools to start — and only if the Legislature funds it — but it also represents the kind of forward thinking we need when it comes to public education in Washington.

One benefit from learning another language is simply this: it makes you smarter. Your brain learns to think in different language patterns. Your can be a more innovative and creative thinker. It is just what we need to be good global citizens. That’s not only good for our kids’ brains — it is also an important economic foundation for our state as an exporter in the world economy. There is a wage premium for bilingual speakers, and they can make their way around the world with more ease.

The best time to learn languages is when you are young. That is when your brain is best at learning words, recognizing sounds, putting together phrases, and building comprehensive fluency. It works for one language, and it works when learning two or three of them! So starting in kindergarten makes sense.

Waiting until high school to teach “foreign” languages creates barriers to language acquisition and fluency in other languages. If we understand that we are no longer teaching “foreign” languages, but instead world languages, and indeed, our very own languages in our state, we can also understand the need for dual-language learning, from elementary school on up.

Superintendent Reykdal’s proposal and Rep. Ortiz-Self’s legislation are important to the future of our state and our kids. We can’t just make do with an underfunded school system, then expect our children to excel and our economy to prosper. We can’t be satisfied with dual-language learning when less than 1 percent of schools actually practice it. We have to invest in our kids now, to get a dividend from their education ten years down the road.

A genuinely good education system attracts and retains the best teachers, enables world learning, and encourages literacy in English as well as in other languages – and it requires real public investment over time. Reykdal proposes $4 billion more per year for our kids. That’s about $4,000 per child. By comparison, one year in prison costs $50,000. It’s clear which investment makes the most sense. Which equation makes the most sense? That is for state legislators to decide, and soon – time is running out!

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at john@eoionline.org.

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