In this Oct. 29, 2010, file photo, Jing Zhang, president of the Bangor Chinese School, discusses foreign language teaching techniques at Husson University in Bangor. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

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Irene Lunt is a Spanish language volunteer for the Multilingual Mainers program in Brunswick and a senior studying computer science, mathematics, and education at Bowdoin College. These are her views and do not express any formal position on behalf of her educational institution. She was invited to contribute this piece by the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

The Maine Department of Education provides world language standards for children starting in pre-K, and for good reason. Simply put: early language learning works wonders for brain development, with research supporting many of the cognitive benefits for second language learners. And yet, year after year, a lack of funding and resources prevents young students from receiving the language training they deserve.

As we start the new year and look to set school budgets for the next academic calendar, language education for Maine children must be a top priority.

If the cognitive benefits of language learning are not enough to convince districts of the importance of allocating funds to these programs, the benefit of intercultural connection should be. For Maine, where 94.4 percent of the state self-identified as white on the 2019 census, homogeneity can result in a limited world view.

But Maine demographics are changing, and the percentage of white Mainers has been declining along with the rest of the nation. The Brookings Institution projects that the U.S. population will be majority non-white by 2045. October enrollment data from the Maine Department of Education shows that nearly 12 percent of students in public schools identified as non-white.

In Maine, the percentage of children with one or more parents born outside of the U.S. increased from 4.5 percent to 6.4 percent of the population between 2000 and 2018 and reflects the shifting demographic landscape of our public schools. How can Maine’s children develop intercultural awareness and communication without ongoing and early language education?

In a campaign debate in October, Sen. Susan Collins — who was just reelected to serve her fifth term in the U.S. Senate — claimed she does “not believe systemic racism is a problem in the state of Maine.” Quantitative and anecdotal evidence begs to differ. In fact, in schools lacking in diversity, students in historically marginalized populations often report heightened levels of harassment and discrimination.

Immigrants and students of color in Maine schools are physically and verbally assaulted, threatened, and excluded by their white peers beginning in elementary school. The xenophobia and racism experienced by these students create unsafe and fragmented learning communities, which harms all Maine students.

It is imperative to implement a curriculum for world languages and cultures starting with young children. This will counter the development of prejudices and foster more connected, respectful learning environments. Substantial research shows that racial biases develop between the ages of 5 and 7, making a stronger argument for early language and cultural education.

A recent study describes how world language classrooms allow students to examine their own cultural and national identities, and, in turn, develop the ability to empathize with and connect to experiences different from their own. In Maine, as more students start to develop these competencies at a young age, schools can become safer, more nurturing environments built on respect and empathy, providing better learning opportunities for all students.

Introducing statewide early education language instruction is a tall order. The bottom line is that language programs require money, staffing, and community support. If Maine wants to prepare students to be a part of a global community, our world language programs need to be strengthened. Lead with Languages outlines steps parents and community members can take in order to start, expand, or save language programs in their schools. Some items include contacting local legislators, joining advocacy groups, and staying involved in programming efforts.

Maine kids need to be able to succeed in a multicultural and multilingual future. World language courses include many lessons about the people and places where other languages are spoken. These classes equip students with tools they need to connect and work with peers across identities and backgrounds, building a stronger, more unified future.

That future needs funding. Contact your local school board members and district administrators, educate your neighbors about the value of language learning for all children, and advocate for funding world languages in your district.