The Mexican president repeated the sentence, emphasizing the last word, giving the interpreter a stern look. Reporters and television viewers watched as the embarrassed interpreter made the correction. The Mexican president had a doctorate from a prestigious American university and knew English well. The American president, also a graduate of prestigious American universities, did not know Spanish, but was fortunate that his words were interpreted correctly.

Another American president was less fortunate. His interpreter twisted his expression of love for the Polish people into a sexual desire. The Polish audience was shocked.

When it comes to international affairs, Americans are as speechless as their presidents. This is partly because English is the century’s lingua franca – the language of pilots, tourism, business, scientific publications, etc. So we let others learn our language. We expect everything to be in English.

But the major reason Americans are tongue-tied has to do with our educational system, which looks inward rather than outward. The study of foreign languages and cultures is seen as a frill and not worthy of serious attention.

Japanese education does the opposite. With an export economy, the Japanese understand that in order to sell their products, they have to know the customers. The place to start is language. In Japan, English is a basic subject from the earliest grades. The Japanese understand that learning languages takes a long time, and they give their students that time.

Learning about the customers goes beyond mere words. The study of culture, history, geography, politics and traditions is an integral part of language. Languages and cultures are essential for an outward-looking educational system.

When it comes to learning languages, American students could have an advantage over their Japanese counterparts – if we allowed them to use it. All we need to do is see the linguistic and cultural resources that immigrant children possess as the gifts they really are. Rather than eliminating bilingual programs – designed to teach students basic subjects and move them to English-only instruction as fast as possible, turning them into monolingual Americans – we should expand them. Immigrant children’s native languages should be maintained. We also should make sure these children grow up literate in English and the native tongue.

But that’s not all. Bilingual education should be available to all American children. Many school districts already have bilingual education programs, which easily could be restructured to teach English-speaking kids to speak Spanish. They would become not only bilingual, but also bicultural.

Spanish-English bilingualism may be easiest to achieve. However, some districts may choose French, Japanese, Russian or Chinese instead.

Regardless of languages, bilingualism makes children better learners because their minds are more flexible and agile than those of monolingual children. Just as a concept may be expressed in two ways using different words, bilingual children can see that problems may have more than one solution.

Bicultural children aren’t bothered by cultural practices that shock others. Bicultural children have a more complete picture of reality, which becomes essential in understanding a smaller and more complex world.

Yet becoming bilingual is not something that can be accomplished in a weekend workshop. Learning languages and culture takes a long time, and that’s why major industrial countries require their children to study languages from the earliest grades.

Even Ron Unz, sponsor of a proposition that would eliminate bilingual education from California schools, has written that in today’s world, bilingual entrepreneurs or employees have a “distinct edge over their English-only peers.”

He is absolutely right. And we should give that edge to all American children. Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif.

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