Good morning! Thank you for giving me the best speaking slot anyone could ask for: 9:00am on a Saturday morning. For some of you, this weekend marks one month in school. Congratulations on surviving it. As a school board member, I know that the school year only goes downhill from here. With that in mind, I will try to be stay upbeat today.
As you heard in that wonderful introduction, my name is Ryan McElveen, and I am an at-large member of the school board in Fairfax County, the 11th largest school system in the country, and also one of the country’s most racially and socio-economically diverse.
Some people say I look too young to be serving on a school board, but I have to remind them that Fairfax County men have the highest life expectancy for men in the United States. I’m actually in my fifties; we just age very slowly in Fairfax.
In addition, at this conference today, I actually feel much more at home than I usually do. When I attend school board conferences, I tend have more hair than most of the men in the crowd.
O.K., enough with the school board jokes.
Yes, Fairfax County residents have the second highest median income in the country, and we have great businesses and schools, but those features tend to mask our problems.
For me, the best part of coming to Washington, DC, on a Saturday, is the lack of traffic and also the lack of school buses. One thing very few people realize about Fairfax County is that our school system has the second largest bus fleet in the country—second only to Greyhound. We also have some of the worst traffic and road maintenance in the country. I’ve asked our political leaders why they like to maintain such poor transportation infrastructure in such a diverse and vibrant community. You know what they tell me? Combining those elements—our diverse population, our bad traffic, and our huge number of school buses—actually saves us money on foreign language education. By the time they graduate, our students will have sat in traffic learning curse words in just about every major world language.
In all seriousness, I am working to persuade my board to draw on the great resources that the metropolitan Washington region offers when it comes to internationalizing our education model. This past year, our board reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring that all students become proficient in at least two languages and has made “demonstrating responsibility to the community and the world” one of our three student achievement goals. Building on that foundation, we still need to make elementary world language education universal, improve our study abroad opportunities, create more institutional partnerships abroad, and draw on the diverse communities and diplomatic resources that reside in D.C. All of our districts should be pursuing these resources.
Now, you may have noticed the full moon in the sky this week. For all the Koreans in the audience, Happy Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). For all the Chinese, happy Zhongqiujie (Mid-Autumn Festival). My wife is a Chinese teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington, and this is the time of year when I accompany her to the crowded Chinese supermarket buy hundreds of mooncakes for her students and her entire foreign language department. For a few days every year, my household is swimming in mooncakes.
If you don’t know what a mooncake is, don’t worry, you aren’t missing out. It is a thick pastry with dense fillings that sometimes include a salted duck egg yolk. Some people consider it the Chinese equivalent of the fruitcake. Others equate it with an edible hockey puck.
Sadly, this year marks a low for the mooncake business in China. Because of a government-led anti-corruption effort, the Communist Party has banned the use of government money by officials to buy mooncakes. As a result, mooncake sales have declined 20 percent compared to last year.
Ironically, a realm of society that has also been greatly affected is the mooncake scalping black market. Unlike in the US where a single fruitcake has the potential to be passed around for years, mooncake stores allow people to buy vouchers for mooncakes as gifts, which the receivers can then redeem for actual mooncakes. What most people do, though, is sell the vouchers on the black market for cash. This year, scalpers are having a tough time buying back vouchers on the cheap and selling them to make money. Imagine that one-fifth of the world is engaged in this kind of trade—clearly the scalping business can be lucrative.
I discuss the “plight of the mooncakes” because they are symbolic of world language education in America. Even though their expense is often hard for many school districts to swallow, they are well worth the investment. Much like such gift-giving, language learning helps students cultivate relationships, not only with other members of their local community but also with the global community. Proficiency in multiple languages allows for a strong society in which people have much greater mutual understanding and respect for others.
The main problem the world language community confronts is that many members of society, and many of our political leaders, do not understand the importance of language learning in our society and world. They do not understand why we need to train global citizens when jobs go unfilled in the U.S. In metropolitan Washington, we see the world getting smaller every day, but some of our communities are so focused on surviving day-to-day that this doesn’t cross their minds. It is hard work, but together we must help convince our students that language is a skill that can be their ticket out of poverty, to a great college, and to a new life.
Unfortunately, as many of us know all too well, once some our students finally realize how important language learning can be later in life, they will have trouble acquiring a new language, much like the people who helplessly run to the mooncake black market when the regular market has failed them. We must convince our students and society of the importance of language learning at a young age, when it can make the biggest difference.
Sixteen years ago, Haagen-Dazs realized that almost all Chinese give mooncakes as gifts, but many don't eat them. So they innovated, creating ice cream mooncakes. As Starbucks, Nestle and Dairy Queen followed suit, these companies collectively made mooncakes cool again. In fact, today the only place to find vouchers for these specialty mooncakes is on the black market because they sell out so quickly, even though they are expensive. But consumers recognize that they are worth the investment. Like high-quality innovative mooncakes, high quality innovative language programs are worth the investment.
The challenge for the world language teaching community is to continue innovating in instruction to convince communities and politicians of the continued usefulness of languages. Otherwise, in an age of simultaneous translation apps and Google glass dictionaries that has collided with an age with diminishing financial resources, superintendents and school board members may come along and say that world language courses are an unnecessary expense.
As political leaders, my colleagues and I must then take that message and invest in languages. We will continue investing in Fairfax, and you must help convince your leaders in DC, Prince Georges, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Loudoun, Alexandria and Arlington to do the same.
In sum, my message to you today, then, is to follow in the steps of Haagen Dazs. Go out, reinvent your mooncakes, and market them to a skeptical public. Only in this way will we be able to secure world language education for future generations.