As the calendar has turned to 2021, we cannot help but be reminded of how incredibly intertwined and interdependent we are all across the globe. What is said or done in one geographic location has ramifications far and wide, which underscores the importance of understanding each other and our actions, not only for the harm that can be inflicted inadvertently, but for the good that can be accomplished intentionally.
At Mercy High School in Middletown, where students from more than 50 Connecticut towns and cities pursue their education, we recognize that the learning that occurs in our classes will provide students with far-reaching opportunities as they advance to higher education and then careers, and seek their place in the world. We also readily acknowledge that knowing a language improves one’s ability to understand a culture, which can offset misconceptions — a consequential result that is beneficial in business and life.
As a Call to Action published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has emphasized, “Language is the key to cultural understanding. While proficiency in English is essential in many facets of life in the 21st century, at home and abroad, knowledge of English alone is insufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a global society.”
The Academy has also stated that “people who speak another language score higher on tests and think more creatively, have access to a wider variety of jobs, and can more fully enjoy and participate in other cultures or converse with people from diverse backgrounds.” As technology makes the world ever smaller, multilingual skills rise in importance and impact.
We strongly recommend to our college-bound student population that their time with us include three to four years of a world language, either Spanish, French, Latin, or Italian – or more than one. Culture is embedded in language learning. This year, nearly 93% of our students are taking at least one world language, and the trend is increasing.
The curriculum also includes Advanced Placement and honors level classes, and Global Affairs, a one semester online course, in which students explore several critical issues that face the global community.
Topics are chosen from historical and current economic, geographic, cultural and political issues, developing critical thinking skills. Relevant to that study, the vast majority (89%) of Connecticut businesses engaged in international trade are small and midsize enterprises employing fewer than 500 workers, according to the Connecticut Business & Industry Association’s International Trade Survey of Connecticut Businesses in 2017.
Among the greatest challenges facing Connecticut exporters are cultural differences, the survey found. CBIA points out that “exporting continues to be vital to the state’s economy and its long-term prosperity, spurring economic growth and creation of jobs here in Connecticut and nationwide.”
At Mercy, the courses not only stress conjugating verbs, reviewing textbooks and listening to audio tapes, but reading authentic articles in the native language on contemporary issues. We heighten awareness of the intersection of language and culture as students develop the competence necessary to confidently contribute to a global society. Linguistic proficiency and cultural sensitivity are components and by-products.
Mercy’s rigorous education is also evident in our participation in the UConn Early College Experience Program (ECE), which provides students with the opportunity to take university courses while in high school, to preview college work, build confidence in their readiness, and earn college credits.
In the United States, only about 20% of K-12 students studied a foreign language in school, according to a 2017 report from the American Councils for International Education. In contrast, across Europe, 91% of students in primary and secondary school were studying English. Language education is also often a casualty when tight budgets lead to curriculum cutbacks in local communities.
“If Americans want the next generation to be active participants in a multilingual world, dual-language and multicultural education is crucial,” The New York Times Learning Network observed in 2019. As a nation, we have a considerable gap to close. At Mercy High School, we are proudly providing our students with meaningful opportunities to develop the multilingual and multicultural foundation to lead the way forward.
Alissa DeJonge is President of Mercy High School in Middletown, a Catholic diocesan college preparatory high school for young women that serves students from more than 50 communities. An economist, she previously was Vice President of Research for AdvanceCT (formerly the Connecticut Economic Resource Center).