What is the best language for our kids to learn?

I'm not talking about C++ vs. Fortran here. I'm talking about actual spoken languages.

I'm not talking about C++ vs. Fortran here. I'm talking about actual spoken languages. I bring it up in this column for a couple of reasons: first, one of my kids really struggled with French this past year and I'm wondering if there are alternatives that might come more naturally for him (he's high on the autistic spectrum, so language is a real challenge). That being said, we actually have a high proportion of kids in our school with language processing difficulties.

The other reason that is far more germane to technology is that the advent of Virtual High School and services like ePals mean that schools are no longer limited to a small number of languages in which teachers have expertise.

My European counterparts are probably scratching their heads right about now. Just to clarify, language instruction here in the States is generally treated as an elective; a couple years of a language and the average student is done, never to speak it again. In other parts of the world, it's a given that students will learn English from an early age and will probably be able to speak in at least one or two other languages with some fluency by the time they graduate from secondary school.

If you live in Europe, this just makes sense (when you're a couple hours by train from people who speak a different language, and might like to actually travel or conduct business someday, learning a foreign language is a basic skill). Similarly, in countries where different dialects exist (Mandarin versus Cantonese, for example), fluency in common languages like English is quite necessary.

We in the States are finally coming to grips with the fact that everyone else in the world doesn't speak English and that we just might encounter the occasional non-English speaker. Geographically, Spanish seems like a no-brainer for us, although French is spoken just over that other border (and acts as a nice primer for Spanish). This being an increasingly global economy, Mandarin Chinese seems like a darn fine choice, too.

I took Japanese in high school and, although I've forgotten way too much of it, I have a much better understanding of Asian culture than I would have otherwise (IMHO, Asian cultures are far more difficult for the average American to understand than European cultures; a bit of insight into the way Asians think and do business should probably become one of those basic skills, too).

So what should we teach? Can Latin please die? There are just too many other good languages out there, whether available locally or via Web-based services to still teach Latin. What works best in your schools and what has been the most useful to your students? Folks outside the US, please feel free to chime in since we've only started getting a clue in the last week or so.

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