by Marty Wilde
We all want our children to succeed. Fluency in another language and culture is rapidly becoming essential to success in the working world, beyond the personal enrichment it has always brought.
Unfortunately, the benefits of immersion in another culture have come more easily to the wealthy in our educational system. The explosion of access to online technology has the potential to expand these benefits.
Our current educational system provides only limited connection to people living in other countries. Our immersion programs are always over-subscribed and exchange opportunities remain expensive.
Opportunities for students in other countries to visit the US are similarly limited to those with the means to travel to the US, both because of the actual cost and because the US immigration system tends disproportionately to exclude people with limited means from other countries.
Technology now allows us to move beyond our current model of wealth-based opportunity to one that includes students of more modest means, both in the US and overseas.
We know that the development of social connections in a second language increases the speed of learning that language. Unfortunately, our current language education system often does little to encourage social relationships between native speakers of different languages.
Put simply, the best way to increase language learning is to connect English speaking children in the US with children who speak the target language.
We see the benefits of this approach in our dual-immersion schools. We also see the limits of these programs in our difficulty in finding qualified bilingual teachers. It comes as no surprise that English language instruction programs in other countries have the same problem.
We can expand the advantages of dual immersion remotely. Building connections between teachers and students across international boundaries through technology does not require travel or even information technology beyond that now commonly used by in the US and overseas.
As I recently watched English-speaking students try to introduce themselves to each other in Spanish, I wondered how much more effective that lesson could be when conducted with a native Spanish speaker. Unlike in person immersion programs, the costs of building online connections between our students and those overseas do not require substantial ongoing funding, just start up and administration costs.
The benefits of these connections go far beyond language acquisition. My prior relationship with local Bosnian attorneys made my recent trip there to work on an anti-terrorism program much more effective, as they could provide me with the current political context.
Similarly, two weeks ago a Ukrainian soldier called a Washington National Guardsman he’d met on a training rotation to troubleshoot a problem with a Javelin anti-tank missile. They fixed the problem together by FaceTime. The Ukrainian called back 30 minutes later to report success against one of the invading Russian armored vehicles.
While we may hope that building these connections may work to prevent war in the future, it’s hard to dispute the effectiveness of having a personal relationship in that case.
When I walk down the street here in Indonesia (where I’m trying to learn the language), I’m often flagged down by school kids with a hearty, “Hey, mister!” They’re happy that I speak some Indonesian, but more interested in practicing their English. Kids have a hunger for knowledge and social connection. Let’s find new ways to feed that hunger, for their benefit and ours.
Photo credit: The author meeting his language teacher, Prita Dyah Kusumaningtyas, for the first time in person after two years of online instruction. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Marty Wilde represents House District 11, which includes Southeast Eugene. Contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.