CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming’s foreign language requirements are insufficient to prepare students for an increasingly globalized world, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn said during the Wyoming Business Alliance’s annual forum Tuesday.
Wolfensohn, who lives in Jackson Hole, said as China and India are becoming major economic powers, future generations need to know Mandarin and other languages to be successful in the coming decades.
China and India have each sent more than 100,000 students to the United States to learn about American culture and language, he said. But only 13,000 American students are studying in China, he said, and only 3,000 have gone to India.
“They know about us. We don’t know a hell of a lot about them,” he said.
Such knowledge is especially important in Wyoming, Wolfensohn said, as the state’s economy is so heavily influenced by world markets for coal, oil and natural gas. And as such resources will eventually run out, he said, Wyoming needs to diversify into other industries, such as information technology, that will require a strong knowledge of other languages and cultures.
Wyoming requires school districts to teach foreign language according to state standards in kindergarten through second grade.
Foreign language courses are not required to graduate from Wyoming high schools, though students must take two years of foreign language to be eligible for the state’s Hathaway Scholarship Program. The University of Wyoming is discussing raising its freshman admission standards to the same level as the Hathaway scholarship requirements.
Last summer, the Natrona County School District offered a two-week Mandarin Chinese language program taught by native speakers for elementary schoolchildren. The program was funded through the STARTALK program of the U.S. Department of Defense.
And as early as next year, a few Natrona County classrooms could be taught in dual immersion, in which half the school day is taught in a different language, said Mark Mathern, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
But Wolfensohn said foreign language programs should start in preschool and continue through high school. He pointed to neighboring Utah, where he said 7,700 students are studying Mandarin to give them an economic edge.
“What we need, in thinking about it, if we want to better internationalize our kids, is to have them really learn (about other cultures), and you can’t do that in two years,” Wolfensohn said.
Gov. Matt Mead agreed that helping Wyoming students to become fluent in other languages “is a wonderful idea” and would be an asset as Wyoming competes in the global marketplace.
However, Mead said he supports the current foreign language requirements for Wyoming schools, and he questioned how schools could implement multiyear foreign language programs in languages such as Mandarin.
“How do we get that down to the schools along with everything else we’re asking our schools?” Mead asked.