?University must adapt to bilingual world

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By Matt Silich

Following local increases in elementary school enrollment in December 2012, the Champaign Unit 4 Schools Board of Education approved a proposal to institute a new dual language elementary school program for Fall 2013. The program, which is entering its third year of classes, is named the International Prep Academy.

Assistant Superintendent Susan Zola said in a Champaign School Board press release that the creation of the program came about because of high demand from local parents.

“Over the past few years we’ve seen a growing interest from our families in this kind of program and for good reason; students who receive a dual language, bilingual education develop high levels of proficiency or skills in two languages, perform academically at or above grade level in all subject areas and demonstrate positive attitudes and behaviors toward two cultures,” said Zola.

As globalization continues to escalate in the 21st century, everyone is realizing it’s more essential than ever to have the ability to speak multiple languages. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always seem to translate here; The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign needs to do a much better job of ensuring that its students are well prepared for today’s multicultural world.

Nowhere is that necessity more obvious than at an extremely diverse place such as the University campus itself.

According to the University, less than half of the student population in Urbana-Champaign is Caucasian — only 45.5 percent. Over eight percent of the University is Hispanic, over 14 percent is Asian and over 22 percent are international students.

Many of these students are bilingual. And University students who aren’t should strongly consider taking up a second language to keep up with their fellow Illini, both on campus and later in life.

It’s not like learning a second language is only useful when one is walking around campus eavesdropping on scattered conversations or in other fun scenarios. Consider that knowing Spanish or Mandarin Chinese would be hugely beneficial for communication with classmates during group projects at the University.

And for the 27 percent of University of Illinois students who study abroad, there’s no better way to enrich an already amazing experience than by learning the native language of one’s host country. While it’s nearly impossible for current college students to become fluent in such a short time, an increased focus on bilingualism could help future students maximize their enjoyment overseas.

Beyond on-campus utility and the importance of bilingualism for studying abroad, knowing a second language can be extremely useful when internship and job hunting — some companies even require fluent knowledge of Spanish because of the job’s location or office demographics.

The United States has long been a step behind other countries, particularly those in Europe, in bilingualism. It’s been estimated that around 20 percent of Americans are comfortable speaking two languages. For Europeans, that number has been reported as high as 54 percent.

It should be acknowledged that the University has certainly done some work to facilitate multilingualism in its students by creating a meager foreign language requirement for graduation. Students in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences must have completed at least two full years of foreign language classes in college to graduate. This requirement changes based on college or major.

That may seem like a significant amount of class, but that thinking ignores how easy it can be to get out of the language requirement. As an example, I took French every year from seventh grade to my senior year of high school and easily bypassed taking college-level language classes at the University.

There’s an issue with the ease of avoiding serious language studies: Junior high and high school classes are notoriously awful at actually teaching one how to speak and understand a second language. I never really learned anything in those French classes — I just memorized the vocabulary necessary to pass the next exam. Frequently those classes lack full immersion in the language of choice, unlike what students would find here. I suspect most other students experienced similarly simple foreign language classes at their high schools.

The University should be placing stricter requirements on students hoping to bypass the foreign language requirement. If I can get by without having the slightest ability to hold a conversation in French, then others are probably doing the same. Many students may complain about having to take classes outside their majors, but the utility of knowing a foreign language in the long run far outweighs the stress of four hours of class a week.

The University’s commitment to widespread foreign language learning should match its commitment to a diverse student population that has made becoming bilingual so beneficial — more needs to be done to ensure that students are prepared for the global communication of today’s world.

Matt is a junior in Media.

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