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Perry’s Perspective: World Languages Make Global Citizens

“Je parle Français un petit peu” — I speak a little French.

The French I remember from studying the language in fourth to ninth grades came in handy in August. That’s when my husband and our three teenagers spent nine days in England and France.

I wanted us to take this trip because I believe the best education gives students a real shot at making their dreams come true and making the world better. To me, our vacation was educational — a way give my children a global outlook.

Our trip was the kind some students within or near Greater University Circle can easily take because their schools and/or families are wealthy. My family went to Europe because we got an unexpected chance to go.

For most families, however, opportunities like the one we had are hard to come by. Although we parents want our kids to do better than us, many of us are worse off than our parents — economically speaking — and we worry our kids may wind up worse off than us.

I think education is the best weapon against poverty. So one way my kids are catching up to the level of education students receive in wealthier schools is by taking college courses for free at Cleveland State University. They do (and did) this through Ohio’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options Program, which is for all qualified high school students.

My oldest is a 2013 high school graduate and — because of PSEOP — in August, she entered CSU as a junior. PSEOP made her a confident college student from Day 1 and saved us two years on tuition.

PSEOP is a great opportunity, but it angers me that growing up in Cleveland, I obtained a better education than my children did because, nationwide, our public education system has failed for decades. Hopefully, Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s ambitious “Cleveland Plan,” which I wrote about last month for Neighborhood Voice, will help turn things around.

In any case, besides me, my daughter is the only one in our family who took a language in elementary school. She studied Spanish for a year or so before the language program ended due to budgetary issues. She picked up Spanish again in high school.

The only language I know well is English, but I studied French, Spanish and Chinese (not all at once) into my second year of college. I resent the fact that my kids weren’t taught world languages in public elementary and middle schools like I was. Research shows very young children absorb new languages the easiest; so my children missed an important time to learn.

Plus, the only reason my daughter and I were taught foreign languages in lower grades was because were were in “gifted” classes. But today’s world keeps shrinking. So we’re crippling our children’s futures by not requiring that world languages be taught to all students — not just so-called “gifted” ones.

In Paris, I saw how important it is to know different languages. My ability to speak French un petite peu (along with gesturing) helped us get subway tickets, directions and food, and file a police report after someone stole my youngest daughter’s backpack.

I also noticed that a lot more people spoke English in France than speak French in the U.S. I think this comes from a type of U.S. snobbery that says, “I’m the big shot country around here so I don’t have to learn your language. You learn mine.”

Maybe the attendant I spoke to in Gare du Nord train station in Paris has met too many people from here with that attitude, and that’s why our conversation went like this:

Me: Parlez vous Anglais? (Do you speak English?)

Him: No. Parlez vous Français? (No. Do you speak French?)

Me: Un petit peu (A little bit).

Him: Alors parlez Français (Then speak French) — he did not say this nicely.

Meanwhile, in no time, my kids were saying “bonjour” (good day) and “merci” (thank you) like Parisians.

When we arrived back home to Hopkins International Airport, I saw a poster from the Ohio Foreign Language Association that read: “Every Ohio student will be proficient in a second language, which is essential to a world-class education.”

Our trip to Europe showed me that when our children know foreign languages, they have keys to the world. In last month’s Neighborhood Voice, I interviewed CMSD CEO Eric Gordon. He told me about the big changes the Cleveland Plan can bring. More than ever, I believe those changes should include mandatory pre-K to 12th grade world language instruction.

Next stop for the Perry-Richardsons: Africa, winter 2014! (Where there’s a will…)

~ By M. LaVora Perry, a writer, wife, mother and 20-year East Cleveland resident. Her children have attended East Cleveland and CMSD schools. Visit her website at at mlavoraperry.com.

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