I woke my children up early in the morning for two full days of Japanese instruction every weekend for several years. I had to rise by 6:00 a.m. to prepare "bento" lunches for these days, and spent the weekend volunteering in the school library. Countless mornings my daughter would ask, "do I really have to go?" I explained to her that this was what came with being part of the Kuwana family.
But in truth it also is a reality of being part of the modern world. In whatever fields my children choose to work, they will come into contact with people from all over the globe. Effective communication with foreign counterparts is more important than ever. But this is not an easy path to pursue in the U.S., where foreign language fluency is rarely attained. We are used to seeing ourselves as a model melting pot. But English language and American cultural norms are required ingredients. The combination often proves lacking abroad.
Where math and science was the weakness of the American education system for the previous generation, it will be cultural diversity for this next one. As British linguist David Graddol says, we have become complacent in seeing English as the international language. The reality is that students need to learn foreign languages to be competitive in an increasingly globalized world.
Recent articles about developments in schools and online learning ("Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?" about the newly founded Avenues School, and "Two Cheers for Web U!" about the shift towards online learning) reflect a positive shift in American education towards meeting needs in an increasingly connected world. But understanding the importance of global education alone is not enough. Instead, in order to pave a path towards cultural and linguistic fluency, students need a holistic approach which reflects individual needs and backgrounds. Without this, parents and educators are overwhelmed with choices and left searching for the "glue," in the words of Nancy Schulman, head of the Avenues School Early Learning Center, to unite awareness and action. In meeting this need, parents may be best advised to look within their own households.
For instance, we decided to speak Japanese exclusively at my home in Greenwich, Connecticut. We placed a high premium on the ability of our children to have fluency in Japanese culture and language including reading, writing and oral skills. Our family has gained tremendous unity from the shared purpose of building a strong foundation in the study of Japanese language and culture.
Educational goals vary family by family. But it is important to appreciate the commitment required to gain true mastery of a language and understanding of a culture outside of a native environment. Standard classes are not enough.
Seeing global education as part of a shared family mission as opposed to an individual pursuit allows students to tap into strong resources for support and insight along the way. Learning a foreign language can be seen as part of way to promote a family's values and mission by providing students with a compass in an increasingly globalized world.
Human understanding requires patience and character. These are qualities that can provide genuine intercultural and linguistic connections. Above all, these traits require personal guidance from teachers and families. Turning on a computer screen or enrolling in one or another academic program including Massive Open Online Classrooms should not be a signal for teachers and parents to take a back seat. Students need to be taught to be global citizens, with global values and a global passport. And for this to happen, there is a pressing need to retake the helm of the evolving global classroom. To succeed, we first need to help students find roots into the vast resources contained within their own culture and relations. Family should serve as the foundation.