Between the Lines By David Lias It was over 15 years ago when I started a job as editor of a small weekly newspaper not that far from Vermillion.
The first week was nerve-wracking. I didn't know anyone in town, and in fact, I knew very little about the history of the town.
I soon learned that everyone who worked on Main Street would stop what they were doing at about 10 o'clock every morning, and walk to the town's cafe/bowling alley for a coffee break.
I figured the only way I was ever going to get to know anyone in town was to begin taking part in this ritual. So, I mustered up my courage, walked into the cafe, and sat among tables filled with strangers.
Many of the people in the cafe were retired. As I glanced around the room, it soon became apparent that I was the focus of attention.
And as if being one of the newest residents in town didn't put me at a distinct disadvantage, suddenly something strange happened.
Many of the older people who had been speaking in English moments before began conversing in German after they saw me quietly drinking my coffee.
They were probably talking about me, I reasoned, and they didn't want me to know what they were saying. Who knows? Maybe they didn't have anything good to say at the time!
This community, I soon learned, was first settled more than a century ago by German immigrants. Many of the older men in town had names like Otto, Ervin, Lothar, Fritz and Gerhard.
Their wives also were of German descent. The older people in town had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who had traveled to this region of the country decades ago to begin a new life.
They brought many of their customs and their native language with them. Naturally, their children, born in America, grew up in a bilingual atmosphere, being exposed on a daily basis to both the German and English languages.
It didn't take me long to feel just a bit jealous. My grandmother's great-grandparents came to America from Germany, and she, too, was fluent in the language.
But not long after my dad came into the world, the United States found itself at war with Germany. American society began to frown on the speaking of the German language within U.S. borders. German hymnals soon disappeared from the pews in Lutheran churches.
By the time I was born, the United States was trying to adopt an egalitarian lifestyle. But I can't help but wonder if our attempts to promote social, political and economic rights and privileges for all sometimes did more harm than good.
The prevailing attitude, when I was growing up, seemed to be that everyone in the United States would fare the best if they all spoke the same language.
And in the early 1980s, as I started my new job as a newspaper editor, even the residents of my new, highly German influenced home were digging in their heels when discussions turned to teaching foreign languages.
The South Dakota Legislature at that time was trying to influence public schools to add foreign language to their slates of required courses.
Local school boards weren't that interested in foreign languages, though. I can remember covering one meeting in which at least one or two members strongly argued against offering such courses as Spanish or German. Hiring people who could teach a foreign language would cost money, they said. And, they noted, most of the highly-developed nations in the world were already teaching their children to speak English.
The Vermillion School Board heard Monday night from a language professor at USD that those old beliefs are changing. Educators are beginning to realize that students who are taught a foreign language — especially at a young age when their minds are still developing — reap numerous benefits.
Their brains are more stimulated than young people who aren't taught a foreign language. Their test scores are higher. They excel in other subjects.
Presently, 31 percent of all elementary schools in the U.S. are offering foreign language instruction. The Vermillion public school district has been successful in offering such courses in recent years, but it was noted at Monday's school board meeting that participation is not particularly high, nor are resources prevalent.
It's apparent that the school district wants to pump up its foreign language instruction. To do this, it must clear time for the courses at a time when students are already extremely busy with classes and activities.
It also must attract well-trained teachers who know how to integrate foreign language instruction into the curriculum. These are formidable challenges. They won't easily be overcome. But that shouldn't stop the Vermillion School Board from attempting to implement comprehensive foreign language instruction.
The things in life that are most worthwhile never come easily.