In many countries around the world, having two or three languages under your belt by the time you graduate high school is an expectation. According to a European Union study, more than 56 percent of European adults speak a language other than the one of their country of residence. Korean students are required to take a full English course and be bilingual by their graduation. In stark contrast, only around 20 percent of Americans consider themselves able to fully converse in a language other than English, according to a United States Census report. The U.S., and by extension Berkeley schools, should aim to educate students to a level of working proficiency in a second language by their graduation.
In Berkeley Unified School District, students are only required to take one year of language or an arts class in order to graduate. The option to take a language class doesn’t even open until seventh grade, leading to a maximum of six years of language instruction. This, combined with the fact that many students find it excessive to add additional non-required years of language to their schedule, leads to BUSD students taking just a couple years of language on average. One or two years of classes, which are often not taken as seriously because of the nature of their choice as an elective, is not sufficient for any given student to become fluent.
The benefits of being bilingual are plentiful. Aside from the obvious: simpler communication with a wider scope of people, it makes students mentally stronger and increases their awareness of world cultures. Wrapped into language classes are insights into societies very different from the United States. According to the DANA Foundation, bilingual people activate both languages whenever they speak. This creates better executive functions in their brain, as well as a strengthened cognitive ability in conflict management, meaning their brains become better at differentiating and picking the best of two options.
On average, it takes 600 hours of dedication to reach basic fluency in a second language. One year of school has about 180 hours of instruction for language classes. At a minimum, BUSD should require three years of a language. Starting a language in elementary school makes it significantly easier to learn and retain, so even just offering second language classes in early years would be a great leap forward for BUSD students.
Being bilingual is an asset that will help students in their daily life, whether with interpersonal connection or in their careers. It should be a prime concern for American schools to educate their students to be members of the global society we live in today. BUSD should make incorporating more expansive language requirements a top priority for the futures of its student body.