COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY/MIKE COHEA
ROAD LESS TRAVELED: A Brown University French class studies on the college green. The R.I. Roadmap to Language Excellence is looking to make high school graduates
proficient in languages beyond English.
For Brown University professor Patricia Sobral, explaining the career-related benefits of being bilingual is quite simple.
“It’s [a big] reason I have a job,” said Sobral, who lectures within the university’s department of Portuguese and Brazilian studies. “It’s essential, in a world that’s constantly changing, not only because there are jobs that are going to require that you know a second language but there is a mind shift that happens. … [You] realize the world is truly full of very, very different people.”
Sobral got her language education at home, raised in Portuguese- and English-speaking households in the United States and Brazil.
As a bilingual, Rhode Island resident emphasizing the practical importance of adjusting skill sets to a shifting economy, Sobral represents the thinking state business and education leaders are putting into the Rhode Island Roadmap to Language Excellence. It’s a plan to have every state high school graduate proficient in English and at least one other language by 2030 without making that a graduation requirement. The project was unveiled at the Statehouse in early June and is set theoretically to begin with a pilot run in fall 2013.
“I think we have an opportunity as a state, and as a country, to better prepare our students to be successful in what we know now is a global economy,” said Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist.
Still in its infancy, the plan began in earnest last December at the 2011 Rhode Island Language Summit hosted by the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown. The URI Chinese Flagship Program, under the leadership of Erin Papa, the program’s coordinator, presented a comprehensive study of the supply and demand for foreign-language speakers in the state.
Among the study’s findings were that more than 20 percent of the state’s population speaks a language other than English at home – primarily Spanish – but that there is a very small percentage of Spanish-speaking civil service employees or health care professionals.