Our Actions Say Otherwise

The study of world languages has been popping up quite often in the webosphere lately, and some of my colleagues have been extremely helpful in sending articles my way for review. The first article, which appeared recently in the New York Times, asked the question “Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?” Five notable authors take a crack at the question:

Some highlights:

from Susan Jacoby:

The situation is, needless to say, worse today as the recession has squeezed education at every level. But the utilitarian problem — we don’t have enough diplomats, spies and business people who know other languages — is rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the American concept of what it means to be an educated person.

from Ingrid Pufahl

In contrast, many U.S. elementary and middle school language programs only offer general exposure to languages but don’t expect proficiency. The only programs here that achieve high proficiency levels are immersion programs, where at least 50 percent of the school day is taught in a second language

from Bruce Fuller:

We must learn the language and engage them at a human scale as first steps in appreciating the strengths of East Asian cultures. These virtues already lift America’s best universities. Over half of Berkeley’s undergraduates are now of East Asian descent.

My initial response to the title was skeptical after having sat through some of our Mandarin classes and been in awe of what these students were doing, but in light of the fact that my view of language is much similar to most of my generations’ which is that of learning language through grammatical structure and conjugation, I think we have a fair shot at being successful in the near future. Dan Fost’s recent post in Edutopia regarding the benefits to the teaching of world language, quotes Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society describing the language learning experiences of past generations and how they affect our attitudes towards it now:

In fact, some of the greatest obstacles to world-language education are parents who recall their own miserable experiences. Many Americans were introduced to foreign languages in middle school or high school classes that emphasized conjugation of verbs and other dull grammatical tasks rather than relevant communication skills. “Language teaching in the U.S. has been ineffective,” Stewart says. “We start it at the wrong age. Teacher skills are not great. There’s a focus on grammar and translation.” The result: “Adults who took three years of French don’t speak a word,” she states.

That’s it. That perfectly describes the ways in which I was taught languages. Here in New Jersey, our World Language standards were entirely streamlined last year from three strands into one. The name of that strand–no it’s not conjugation–is Communication. So when I think back to my days in a Latin class or a Spanish class, I think of all of the grammar I learned, the cases and the tenses, and wonder why I can no longer recall any conversational bits, but only how to conjugate jugar in the present tense (yo juego, tú juegas, él juega, nosotros jugamos, vosotros jugáis, ellos juegan–so there). Our focus, in any language, should first and foremost be communication. To do that, as Fost points out, there are many ways to connect your students to native speakers that don’t involve a large parental bankroll and a passport. Let’s immerse our kids in the richness of another culture, because I feel that if we don’t do this for them, they won’t do it for themselves. Just ask ol’ Teddy Roosevelt about American attitudes towards other languages:

“We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language”

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2 thoughts on “Our Actions Say Otherwise

  1. that is pretty much my language learning in a nutshell as well, Patrick. 5 years of spanish instruction and I can only recall a few silly pneumonics. We still teach language using the same post WWII methods and techniques. Schools are still debating things like, “Should we drop french and add mandarin? How many languages can we offer? etc.” The question should be, “How are we going to offer our students an unlimited number of languages in our school, district, etc?” If we can just think a little outside the box, I think it is quite possible to offer chinese, spanish, french, portuguese, latin, russian, japanese, arabic, german, italian, korean, and many, many more.

    1. Matt,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. It strikes me as the same pattern that I saw when I was teaching English in middle school: students have had the parts of speech and grammar since birth, but still struggled to apply it or see its relevance to them. Language acquisition has to begin to see itself differently in public education, and within America as a whole. Our rogue disregard for the learning of other languages over the last century will get us into trouble as Asian economies begin to hold sway over us.

      With the advent of so many different ways for students to access language and authentic speakers of languages, your last sentence should be a birthright.

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