An old joke told in Europe goes like this:
Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks many languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks just one language?
Whether the facts support the generalization that Americans are less fluent than the rest of the developed world in more than their mother tongue is a matter of some dispute. But it doesn't take an oracle to see that if we don't improve our fluency in the languages and cultures of a post-emergent global marketplace, our ability to compete economically -- not to mention cooperate productively -- with people of other countries will slide precipitously.
Schools, naturally, must be the front line advancing our role in the world economy, and it is reassuring to see, as Daily Herald staff writer Tara Garcia Mathewson wrote for Sunday's editions, many suburban school districts promoting a new depth of language training that goes beyond traditional foreign language study.
So-called "dual language" programs immerse students in the program language -- usually Spanish, but one suburban school offers Japanese, and programs are emerging in districts around the country in languages as traditional as French and as increasingly influential as Chinese.
The goal, of course, is not to replace English, nor even to diminish its position as the dominant language of American culture. But dual language programs can help Americans operate more successfully in a multicultural world, as well as help children learning English become more proficient in the language and culture of this country.
They can also have an effect beyond the students themselves. West Chicago Elementary District 33, for example, requires parents of students in its English-Spanish dual language program to help out for 10 hours at school and to attend meetings or workshops. In such an environment, learning becomes a family affair in the broadest sense.
But the evolution of such innovations is far from complete -- or even advancing. In a study of more than 5,000 American schools, a 2008 national Center for Applied Linguistics report found that foreign language programs are decreasing in public elementary and middle schools, no doubt frequent victims of shrinking school budgets. The report also acknowledges the considerable advantages demonstrated for students who learn a second language and cites the positive benefits from "pockets of innovation" like those schools initiating dual language programs.
The brutal economics of our time have to figure into every school district's strategic plan, of course. But the developing world economy is no joke, and if we are to prepare students to play a significant role in it, their familiarity with other languages and cultures can't be, either.