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There’s only one way to say it: Your kids should be taking foreign language in school. 

Once reserved for specific applications such as certain career fields or international travel, the ability to speak and understand a foreign language is now an invaluable skill, according to David Nance, foreign language curriculum specialist with the Arkansas Department of Education. 

“There’s no question that [foreign language has] become more and more important as the world has gotten smaller in a lot of ways,” he said. “It does help you be more open-minded. It gives you a broader world view. It does open up travel opportunities. It gives you a chance to make more friends.”

“People always want to know about the side benefits, but language teachers prefer to talk about the benefits of learning a language for the sake of learning the language. It can help you with the ACT or whatever else, but at the end of the day we believe in learning languages for the sake of being able to communicate with people.”

There is ample evidence to back up foreign language’s claim as an academic superfood in study after scientific study catalogued by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, some dating back to the 1960s. 

“There’s definitely a lot of research that shows correlation between second language and cognitive abilities like your working memory or your executive functions,” Nance said. “[Studies] in areas such as increased creativity, increased abstract thinking, problem-solving, lots of different things, going back 50 to 60 years back those claims.”

In Arkansas, foreign language is almost exclusively taught at the high school level, as elementary and middle schools are not required to offer such coursework and thus very few do. Public high schools in the state are required to offer two years of foreign language; however, it is not required that students take any such classes in order to graduate. 

Nance said that often the value of being bilingual escapes students even as their classrooms and communities become increasingly multicultural. 

“One of the funny things is, high school teachers constantly face the attitude from students that they don’t need this in real life,” he said. “But when they introduce themselves to adults as a French teacher or especially a Spanish teacher, the very first thing they hear is, ‘Oh my gosh. I wish I spoke Spanish.’ 

“I think adults tend to recognize a value that’s sometimes harder for students to recognize.”

Another challenge schools face is staffing the requisite teaching skillset, especially when one gets beyond Spanish, French or German. For that reason, the state provides several distance learning options to give students access to instruction. 

“We have an in-house, state-funded distance learning provider called Virtual Arkansas,” he said. “We also have multiple providers that are approved from out-of-state, private providers that have gone through our process to be approved to offer languages.” 

“That’s a great opportunity for a student who wants to study Japanese, for instance, or Arabic or something like that. Hardly anybody in the state teaches those, so these out-of-state providers are opening new opportunities for kids.”

 The long-held assertion that the younger the student, the easier it is for them to learn a foreign language is still a matter of scientific debate. But as the many studies catalogued by the ACTFL attest, some involving students as early as first grade, an early start certainly doesn’t hurt.

“Language is about time and it’s about exposure to the language,” Nance said. “The younger you are, the more time you have to be exposed to it. So without a doubt getting an earlier start is going to be better for you in that regard.”

“What it comes down to is, the best time to start learning a foreign language is now.” 

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North Little Rock ESL teacher enjoys role
If you couldn’t tell from the playground, one glance at the eighth-grade composite photos lining the hallways at North Little Rock Catholic Academy tells you how dramatically the student body in this small, parochial school has changed in recent years. The past six departing classes have been a checkerboard of ethnicity, and with that diversity has come new challenges.

Among these are language barriers, said Denise Troutman, principal. Of NLRCA’s 190 students, she said roughly one-fourth qualify for English as second language tutoring, which the school provides using a program of the North Little Rock School District.

Luis Torres, 21, is in his second year as the school’s ESL teacher. Three days a week he’s here, leading students across multiple grade levels through language lessons, providing additional help in other subjects and generally providing a friendly face to students as they work to assimilate in school. 

“I love helping others,” he said. “I help them with not just the language portion, but every subject they have. I do focus more on the kids that are struggling with language. I try to help them with reading, writing, which are the main two things for the language.” 

Torres said contrary to what many people believe, most Hispanic parents are eager for their children to learn English, seeing it as a necessary component of success in America. Torres agrees with this, saying that to understand English is to better understand the American thought process that permeates everything. 

 “Learning-wise, you can see things in two different ways. You have a different aspect, a point of view,” he said. “Learning English and science, knowing a second language helped me a lot. I was able to see the point of view from the American learning style.”

At the same time, many families worry that in learning English their children may lose a sense of their native heritage and culture, particularly among their American-born kids.

“I was able to see the point of view from the American learning style”

“They want their kids to learn a new language because they believe that it brings them more opportunities, especially in education,” Torres said. “But I’ve also seen some people that their kids are learning English and they don’t want them to forget about their Mexican culture or their language. There are some kids that, especially since they’re born here, they just learn the English through school and they can’t really speak Spanish.”

Torres didn’t set out to be a teacher of any kind, but is uniquely suited for this type of work. When his family immigrated to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago, he was in the very same situation as the kids he now tutors. This empathy makes him particularly good at his job. 

“I wanted to give it a try because I wanted to help people,” he said. “I can see the kids grow and learn more, especially when it comes to the language problem. I can see them getting used to a new environment, a new culture. I’m just really glad that I get to help people the way they helped me.”