Editorial: Illinois two-year foreign language requirement in high school is too late

Almost a year ago, the Illinois General Assembly passed an education bill sponsored by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus during the Lame Duck session that includes three new course requirements needed for graduation from Illinois high schools. The area of studies in House Bill 2170, Amendment 3, which was introduced by Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, includes two years of foreign language classes and two in laboratory science course work.

The new law gives schools until the 2024-2025 school year to offer the required science lab classes and gives districts until the 2028-2029 school year to begin their foreign language instructions. Both laboratory science and a foreign language will be required for high school graduation. There was some discussion that dates for the language requirement could be pushed forward as early as 2024.

The seemingly popular rationale for the change was the University of Illinois requires two years of a foreign language for admission. That's all well and good, but the bulk of in-state college-bound students won't be going to the U of I.

Checking around the state, students don't need a language class to get into other state schools.

Illinois State University gives applicants a choice of two years of one foreign language or two years of fine arts classes. High school foreign language is not a requirement for admissions at Western Illinois University. Students can have two years of art, film, music, speech, theatre, journalism, religion, philosophy, and vocational education on their transcript instead. Southern Illinois University mirrors WIU's requirements with art, music, or vocational education. If a foreign language is taken, both WIU and SIU say applicants must complete two semesters of the same language.

Some members of the Illinois State Board of Education pushed back against the new requirements, as they should have, particularly the one on foreign language.

If the law and policymakers really wanted more students to attend Illinois' flagship university, they should pass a bill abolishing it as an entrance requirement. The University's entrance requirement could simply match those of the other state-funded higher education institutions.

Then again, the lack of foreign language education could make most Illinois students undesirable in several career fields.

Instead, the ISBE and state lawmakers need to require language learning at a much earlier in the educational cycle where research shows when language acquisition is much easier.

"What's the best time to teach a foreign language? It is not high school," Board member Christine Benson told NPR. "What’s the second worst time to teach a foreign language? It’s junior high. [Lawmakers] did no research on this, they just added it on."

She is right: High school or junior high is not the best time to learn a foreign language. The only reason to require students to take two years of foreign language in high school is to inflict unnecessary academic torture. For many students around the state, their first exposure to another language other than English is in their first high school language class.

In Russia, Norway and Japan, learning a second language, usually English, is mandatory in the 5th grade. The same is true in Germany and Japan. In Switzerland, after starting German or French two years earlier in the 3rd grade, 5th grade students also start learning the English language.

The U.S. with Illinois leading the way should match the educational standards in other industrialized nations. Studying a second or third language earlier in their academic career will enable them as adults to meet the challenges in international business, national defense, and world politics to make America great again.