English Is Not Enough

US and UK flags, with two children with bubbles in English and Italian
This opinion piece was written by CBSNews.com London producer Tucker Reals.

Ah, high school Spanish. I learned how to recite the Spanish alphabet, and how to make it known that I wanted to leave class to visit the men's room. That's about all.

I grew up in a U.S. suburb with a large Hispanic population. Yet, despite having a seemingly good reason to want to learn Spanish, and constant prodding from teachers and parents, I made a lot of visits to the men's room. I wasn't that good at Spanish, and I didn't much care.

When I started my freshman year in college, a placement test put me in my place, which turned out to be Spanish 101 — the class for beginners, all over again.

What if I had started learning at the age of seven?

By 2010, every kid that grows up in the British school system will have to learn a foreign language from the ages of seven to 14. I think American kids should too.

Small Continent, Many Languages

Britain's education secretary has backed a government-commissioned study that encouraged this change as part of an upcoming curriculum overhaul. As is, the U.K.'s youth are subjected to foreign language classes for one year, around age 11.

At 14, the age when we as Americans enter high school, it becomes an optional subject and, not surprisingly, a pretty unpopular one.

The thinking behind the policy shift is this: "Making language study compulsory from seven to 14 will give pupils seven years to build up their knowledge, confidence and experience," according to Secretary Alan Johnson.

It's also a piece of catch-up policy for the Brits. As Lord Dearing, the British parliamentarian who headed the study that recommended the change, said: "The rest of Europe is starting at seven, it's about time we did."
Europe is small; Britain is separated by only a few hundred miles from a lot of other countries where English is not the mother-tongue, and it's bound to them through the European Union.

The United States is huge. Many Americans can drive — fly even — for hours and not touch down in a place where anything but English is required of them, so it may seem less important for our kids to speak another language. We should teach them anyway.

For English's Sake

Studying a second language is not only about learning to speak Spanish or French, it's about studying language — the way words work together.

I did eventually become interested in learning Spanish, thanks to a good professor in my 101 class.

Throughout high school, I struggled to comprehend the rules of English grammar. When I finally started digesting my Spanish lessons, I found myself suddenly understanding the rules that govern my own language.

Because we learn our native language by growing up with it, the rules of our own grammar can be abstract and hard to grasp. Learning a second language — seeing parallel rules and patterns clearly laid out — provides a point of reference. I started thinking about my own language analytically for the first time.

So there's my response to all of those who would argue valuable class time should not be wasted teaching foreign languages to American children.

Look Around You

Immigration is a touchy topic on both sides of the Atlantic, I assure you. Whether you think it makes our nation stronger, or you believe it's eroding our values and social systems, it is an undeniable fact of life.

Latinos are now the largest minority population in the United States and regardless of new legislation, fences, and Minutemen in lawn-chairs at the border that is not going to change. So, whether you like it or not, many of you will be living near Latinos.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.