Special Report: the Future of Foreign Language

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"Un raton en la casa!" kindergarten students shout back to Lansing schoolteacher Ann Grimm.

You heard right: Kindergarteners are learning Spanish right here in Lansing.

"We have an enormous population in the country and especially in the city who speak Spanish. It's important for communication," Grimm said.

Grimm drops by Lansing's Wainwright magnet school three days a week to teach Spanish to five- and six-year-olds. They're the age at which researchers say it's easiest to learn a new language.

And the language they're learning makes sense, according to Michigan State University’s acting dean of International Studies.

"From a business standpoint, Spanish, understandably, would be an important one," Acting Dean Jeff Riedinger said.

But some say in the increasingly global 21st century, it's time to broaden language offerings.

"Looking to the future: Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Korean. A number of languages. Hindi. They're already important trading partners or becoming important trading partners," Riedinger said.

He says with all the talk about Michigan becoming competitive in the "global economy," state residents are going to have to do their part by learning more global languages.

"Our competitors are learning their own language and culture and learning our language and culture. That puts them at a competitive advantage," Riedinger said.

So more broad foreign language offerings could help Michigan businesses grow globally. But what about those who plan to live and do business right here?

"There are plenty of people -- residents here in Michigan -- for whom English is not their first language," Riedinger said.

The Lansing area is, in some ways, miles ahead of hundreds of cities around the country when it comes to learning these critical languages. Chinese will be available for pre-schoolers in both Lansing and East Lansing next school year.

It's relatively easy for bigger cities and college towns to bring Chinese to the classroom, but how about smaller schools?

"Many school districts across the state won't have enough interest to hire a full-time instructor, but they might (be able to) share an instructor across schools or districts, or take advantage of the online language products we're developing," Riedinger said.

One MSU online language product will bring Mandarin Chinese to Michigan students through a partnership with the Chinese government.

"It's the duty of my office to foster learning the Chinese language as a foreign language," Xu Lin of China's National Office for Teaching Chinese said during a visit to Lansing.

MSU is working to offer languages like Arabic and Hindi as well.

But with all the talk of moving behind those old European languages, Riedinger says it's still key to teach the widest array of languages possible.

"We would be well-served as a country from a cultural as well as a security standpoint if we had as diverse a number of language learners as we have languages in our immigrant population," Riedinger said.

Most of those immigrants learn English, as do businessmen around the world. But MSU's polling data shows Michiganians still value foreign language.

"(There is) widespread recognition that Michigan's economy is interconnected," Riedinger said.

That means Michigan could be headed for a dramatic transformation of the languages schools teach and how students learn them.

For more information on Lansing's pre-school Chinese program, which is available tuition-free, call (517) 325-6242. For information on East Lansing's program, call the Bailey Child Care Center at (517) 337-7615. Parents enrolling their child in East Lansing's program will have to pay tuition.