Language is a bridge between cultures as much as it is a tool for communication. The complex role of language has led to controversy over whether it is better to provide education in a minority language (a language spoken by the minority of a population) or simply educating students in the dominant language of a given region. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem: 20 percent of the population of the United States speak a language at home other than English, 56 percent of Europeans are bilingual, and it is believed that over half of the entire world’s population is bilingual.
Given the growing size of the bilingual population, students should receive bilingual education starting in elementary school, in which humanities and social studies are taught in one of the country’s minority languages, and math and the sciences are taught in the dominant language. After establishing fluency in both languages, from middle school onwards, students would be taught their classes in the dominant language — in preparation for college admissions or job searches, depending on their intended career — in addition to one literature class continued to be taught in a minority language. This ensures that students are more skilled and maintain a competitive edge when applying to colleges or for jobs, and that students retain their newly acquired command of their minority language.
Teaching math and sciences in English benefits both students and the global scientific community. It equips students with a universal tool with which to contribute to future scientific research. For example, schools in the Philippines teach Filipino history in Tagalog, but math and science in English. Speaking with international students at MIT reveals that the Philippines is not the only country that adopts this system. Many foreign students attest to the fact that learning technical subjects in English enabled them to be admitted to, and thrive at an institution such as MIT. In an increasingly competitive global economy, allowing foreign students to learn technical subjects in English may even give the U.S. an edge in attracting the best and brightest from a global pool of talent.
Furthermore, teaching humanities classes in the minority language would benefit both students and their local communities. Studying their minority language in a cultural context would not only enrich students’ cultural identities, but it would also cultivate their social relationships with people of similar cultures. As revealed by a recent linguistic survey on German and Italian education in schools in South Tyrol, friendships between students who are native speakers of different languages encourages students to each others’ languages. Furthermore, the linguistic preservation and revitalization that comes with teaching literature or history in a minority language would be valuable to any community. For example, in Hebrew day schools in the United States, the Old Testament is taught in Biblical Hebrew while Israeli history is taught in modern Hebrew. Teaching ethnically relevant subjects in the most appropriate language is more likely to capture the subtleties that may only be aptly expressed in that language.
Even if one has not grown up in a bilingual environment, it is not too late to reap the potential benefits of a multilingual education while at college. Although MIT teaches subjects primarily in English and has no foreign language requirement, students still have opportunities to immerse themselves into a foreign culture through Foreign Languages and Literatures. The FL&L department offers a selection of foreign language classes at a range of levels, as well as culture classes that have quite a popular reputation. In fact, I have handfuls of friends who began studying a second, or third language at the Institute. They were able to study these at a level advanced enough to spend a summer in the country of that language, and returned with a newfound appreciation of a culture that was once foreign to them.
In a globalized society, it is more important now than ever to both be communicative in the dominant language common across global communities, as well as to preserve one’s cultural identity by retaining or learning one’s minority language. A bilingual education would prepare students for future professions, enrich their connection with their cultural heritage, and enhance their social experiences.
Implementing bilingual programs may be a challenge, but it is challenge worth pursuing.
Erika Trent is a member of the Class of 2015