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.
President Bush is helping that process along by pushing trade pacts with countries south of the border. He came into office vowing to create stronger ties with Latin American nations, and he's just returned from a trip to further that cause.
I landed my first job mostly because I speak a second language. The value of the skill in the U.S. job market is going to increase. Why not give every kid in the country a real chance to try for that skill?
Why So Young?
Because it's easier. Children's brains are like sponges, they absorb whatever is around them.
According to a 2006 study by the American Educational Research Association, "young children tend to absorb relatively easily any language that they are surrounded by, and they appear to learn to speak a new language more easily than adults do."
The group is careful to point out the fairly obvious fact that attempting to teach a seven-year-old rules of grammar, of any language, is probably a futile exercise.
"A few hours a week of foreign language instruction focusing on learning words, songs, and a few ritualized exchanges is good for cultural exposure and appreciation, but do not expect real mastery," the study warns.
But, "age-appropriate" language instruction does give kids a big advantage down the road, one cited by the U.K. education secretary: confidence.
Kids do pick up accents and pronunciation, and it sticks. This is the stuff that — if you're trying to learn it in a class of 25 other 13-year-olds — can be pretty embarrassing; embarrassing enough to prompt a teen to give up on a language without giving it a fair chance.
English Isn't Enough
Finally, I wish to dispel a myth: That everyone who matters in the world now speaks English, so it's pointless to learn any other language.
The world is getting smaller, yes, and it's true that many nations now teach their kids English.
It is a luxury to not have to learn English because you already speak it. And, indeed, if you get into the business world and sit down at a table with a bunch of foreigners, they may envy you for not having spent hours learning your own, rather difficult, language.
Your smugness may fade, however, as the Japanese guy and the Moroccan woman trade jests in French about the lazy American who only speaks his own language.
Or, as Lord Dearing's report puts it: "As English becomes a mass commodity, it loses its uniqueness. The more educated and skilled people of all nationalities can operate in English, the less the advantage of being a native speaker, and especially a monolingual one."
Speaking English as a mother tongue should be a reason to learn a second language, not an excuse to ignore the rest.
And it's not just for business types. Remember, the world is getting smaller.
Again, from the British government report: "In an age of increasing complexity and accelerating change, society needs people who are both confident in themselves and who are willing and able to engage with others on their own terms, and with an understanding of their actions, their values and what matters to them. Learning a language is the gateway to this."
The United States is the most powerful, and still, believe it or not, one of the most respected countries in the world. I hope that doesn't change. The kids are the future, and the future won't have subtitles.