NJ’s public schools lead the nation in world language learning

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

It’s well established that New Jersey’s public schools are the best in the nation. But did you know that our public schools also lead the nation in the percentage of students learning a world language?  

According to the American Councils for International Education in The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report, New Jersey far outperforms all other states in the percentage of students enrolled in a world language class. More than half of all New Jersey K-12 students are studying a world language.  

By far the most popular language is Spanish, with more than 300,000 students enrolled en clase. La deuxième is French, with more than 60,000 students.  

But what is the value if a student can sprechen Sie Deutsch, parler français or hablar español, for example? The truth is, quite a lot. And the value can be measured socially, emotionally, creatively, economically and physically.  

The social benefits of a multilingual person and culture 

As E.M. Forster wrote in Howard’s End, “Only connect!” What better way to connect with the other 8 billion people on earth, 75% of whom do not speak English, than to learn another language?  

New Jersey is one of the most language-diverse states in the United States, which is historically a language-diverse nation. Speaking another language enables people to communicate with family members in other countries, assist new arrivals to our country, enjoy movies, music and TikToks created in another language, and impress friends and family members by ordering delicious food in interesting restaurants.   

In addition, learning another language can facilitate travel, opening up new opportunities to see and experience the world.  

How multilingualism benefits a person emotionally 

You don’t need to leave home in order to change your perspective. Learning another language can help you see your own country through new eyes. It can expose you to different points of view by allowing you to consume media from different countries and experience their point of view, allow you to explore new neighborhoods and cuisines, and talk to people whose history and culture may be very different from your own.  

Some studies have shown that speaking another language may make you more empathetic and open to a more “global mindset.” Some people have even said that they felt like “a different person” when they spoke in another language.  

Get creative when you leave your mother tongue behind 

Anyone who has ever learned a language remembers the frustration of being unable to fall back on their tried-and-true words and phrases, and the breakthrough moment when they discovered new favorite words that unlocked thoughts and feelings they had never expressed before. There are some things that just cannot be expressed within the limitations of a single language. How fortunate we are that we are able to learn and discover “le mot juste.”  

The economic benefits of multilingual people and states 

The ability to communicate in more than one language is a significant competitive advantage. It is one of the top eight skills required of all occupations, regardless of sector or skill level, and the demand for bilingual professionals is rising.  

Research indicates that the return on investment of speaking another language is 2:1; that is, for every dollar spent learning one of the most in-demand languages, such as Mandarin, French or Arabic, you can expect a $2 return. A study in the United Kingdom estimated that, “if pupils in the U.K. could increase their learning of Arabic by about 10%, this would correspond to GDP growth of up to £12.6 billion over 30 years. A similar boost in Mandarin would see a £12.3bn gain to the economy, with French and Spanish producing £9.5bn and £9.7bn respectively,” according to The Horizons Tracker. 

Change (and improve) your brain 

Learning another language actually increases your brain size! In addition, brain scans of bilingual individuals found denser grey matter within the brain’s left hemisphere. More grey matter indicates a healthier brain. Studying another language also strengthens communications and processing signals in the brain, which helps it function at a higher level. 

Some studies have also found that bilingual children performed better in short-term recall tasks than children who only spoke one language. In addition, your ability to focus your attention and your ability to plan and anticipate events are improved by learning another language. Language study also trains your brain to focus on a single task while tuning out distractions.  

Finally, there is some evidence that speaking at least two languages can delay age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. While further research is still being carried out, it is clear that learning another language challenges all areas of the brain. The great news is that you are never too old to learn a second (or third, or other) language.  

The liberation of making mistakes 

Sticking to the same language all of one’s life can lead people to a certain rigidity of thought, but learning another language necessitates making mistakes. There will be false conjugations, embarrassing turns of phrase, mistranslations that lead to hilarious misunderstandings. All of that can be very liberating—and humbling—and that is good for the ego.  

There are so many reasons to learn another language, at any age. These findings hold true for native speakers of English and for students whose first language is not English. New Jersey is a national leader in so many areas, we must continue to lead the nation in our embrace of other languages and the rich cultural diversity that makes our state the best and most interesting in the nation!  

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.   

Ten most common languages spoken at home in the U.S., apart from English

Cantonese and Mandarin 
French and Louisiana French 
Haitian Creole 

Source: Visualcapitalist.com 

American Sign Language as a world language

American Sign Language (ASL) is federally recognized as a world language and has been linguistically proven as a language since 1964 at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  

Since 1997, more than 45 states have passed legislation allowing ASL to fulfill a world language requirement, for hearing as well as deaf students. At least 19 New Jersey public high schools currently teach ASL, and more are sure to follow. One of those is Ocean City High School where 2017-18 NJ State Teacher of the Year Amy Andersen teaches ASL in a program that now includes more than
200 students a year! 

Who’s our competition? 

Best in U.S. for world language education 

New Jersey 
Washington, D.C. 
New Hampshire 
New York 

When did “world” language replace “foreign” language?  

By Ashley Warren, FLENJ Vice President of Membership 

While the term “foreign” language is still used in older research and in some national discourse, many educators have moved away from the term in favor of world languages.  

World language educators have made the shift because using the term “foreign” to refer to the languages that we teach can send an inaccurate and stigmatizing message. Most of the languages that we teach are not foreign, especially in New Jersey. With the exception of some classical languages, these world languages are alive, thriving and evolving all around us. These languages are spoken in our communities by our neighbors. 

The NJDOE has made this change as well. See for yourself.

Our organization (FLENJ) will likely vote to amend our name later this year. While we’ll keep the “F” in FLENJ, the F will not stand for “foreign” if the referendum passes. 

Connect with Foreign Language Educators of NJ (FLENJ) 

The Foreign Language Educators of NJ (FLENJ) are one of NJEA’s affiliate groups. They are the premier state organization dedicated to world language education, and they support the New Jersey community of world language professionals by advancing policy and practice.  

At present, FLENJ is in the process of exploring an update to the organization’s name, with the aim of modifying the “F” in FLENJ from “foreign” to a more inclusive term. More information to come as members and board members weigh in on the proposed change! Learn more at flenj.org.