Se habla American

Time’s cover story on 21st-century education complains that schools aren’t changing with the times.

Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed.

This doesn’t ring true to me. In most schools, teachers don’t lecture all day to passive, note-taking students; they assign “hands-on” group projects. There’s lots of technology, though usually not enough training to help teachers figure out how to use it effectively. Schools are handing out laptops to students — with little or no academic payoff.

But let’s go on to the global economy:

(This generation could) fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad or speak a language other than English.

While the Internet makes it more important that students learn to analyze the quality of information, the challenge of getting students to think predates the 21st century. As for working in teams, that’s been the norm for the last 20 years, maybe more. That leaves speaking a foreign language. Only half of high school students study another language.

Not a high priority, argues Kevin Carey on The Quick and the Ed. Like me, he took French and found it “useful only when traveling in French-speaking countries, of which they aren’t very many.”

Not that I think studying language is a waste of time. I just would have been better off spending that time studying this language, doubling up on English literature, writing, rhetoric, etc. I know that students in other countries around the world are generally much more likely to study multiple languages. But that’s partially a function of geography — places like Europe are much more multi-lingual. And it’s partially because they’re not here. If there was a huge country somewhere else that dominated the world’s economy, culture, and commerce, I’d want to learn their language. But I live in that country, so I don’t have to.

He nods to Spanish as a useful language for Americans, but it’s hardly essential. Perhaps studying the history and culture of other countries is more important than learning to speak their language badly.

What do you think, loyal readers?

About Joanne


  1. I think it would be valuable if most students came out of High School with the ability to read and write English.

  2. Based on my experience in working with and coaching international teams and corporate divisions, made up of Americans (North and Latin), Asians (India, China, South Korea), and Europeans, the biggest need for American students is not to learn another language, but to learn how to speak their own.

    American students find themselves in the fortuitous position of having American English become lingua franca of international business. However, they can only take full advantage of this if they know how English grammar, syntax, and idioms work. If they understand and utilize this knowledge, they will find themselves ascending to leadership positions because of their ability to understand what the many different ESL speakers are trying to say when they adapt (usually unconsciously) their native language grammatical structures to English.

    A simple example: With mixed groups, a great deal of confusion sometimes occurs with possessives, especially if there are Romance language speakers, who are used to the “of the” possessive, as opposed to the English “‘s”, mixed with speakers from languages that interpret “of the” as meaning one’s place of origin or employer (then, of course, there are a few languages whose speakers have trouble distinguishing the ending “s” sound after certain consonants, but that’s another nightmare). Throw in a few sentences where ESL listeners have to concentrate on the context to understand if the “s” at the end of a noun is a plural or a possessive, then watch the confusion, frustration, and uproductivity.

    The point of all this is that fully skilled and knowledgeable English speakers will be the ones who can sort all this out, keep things moving, and serve as natural leaders and facilitators. Needless to say, the US schools are failing utterly at this. Coincidentally, my 11- and 16-year-olds and I are starting a full grammar study right now, because their aiblity to write has been severely stunted by their uncertaintly as to how sentences work, never having been systmatically taught how language works.

  3. French is dead useful–it’s spoken on every continent. Quebec, Haiti, VietNam, lots of African countries, South Seas–and you always get to sound so cultured. Spanish is also useful, but most Americans don’t really lean to speak New World Spanish in schools, and thus, sound sort of weird to Central American Spanish-speakers.

    My husband speaks about 5 languages and is fluent in two–Spanish (as in Mexican Spanish) and Russian. Most Mexicans take him for an American raised in Mexico.

    But a gift for languages is a special intelligence–I don’t have it, and thus took Latin, which was wonderful.

  4. to say that “there aren’t that many” french speaking countries is simply wrong. 32 countries in the world have french as their official language. another half-dozen have french as their national language (i.e. everyone speaks it). that’s more than any other language other than english. i’ve used french to get by in mali, tunisia, lebanon, and uzbekistan.

    personally, i’m always embarrassed by how few foreign languages americans know.

  5. Given that English is so “flexible” with accepting new words, having some idea of how other languages are structured is very valuable. Knowing the base language of a word gives you hints on how to spell it correctly. It also gives an appreciation for the history and background of the different countries. (While studying Russian in college, we got into a really interesting discussion about French grammar and vocabulary and “court language” vs “common language” in the tsarist courts.)
    Studying multiple languages is part of being an educated person.

  6. “… reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed.”

    This is one of my pet peeves. Which textbooks?

    US History? I hope that US history isn’t changing a *LOT*. Especially history more than 50 years ago (and I’ll note that a lot of US history classes tend to finish around WW II, well before the textbook does).

    Ancient History?



    High school biology, chemistry, and physics?

    Foreign languages?

    Sorry, but most subjects taught in K-12 are not moving so fast that using five year old textbooks (or 25 year old textbooks, for that matter). I’d like to know why we replace perfectly good textbooks
    every 5-7 years.

    -Mark Roulo

  7. In my wandering youth, I had various opportunities to study (in class or by immersion) French, German, Portuguese, Hebrew and Thai. In college I followed up a bit on the German and the French, in which I was fluent but am now rusty.

    As an adult, the only use I’ve gotten out of any of it was on my honeymoon in Paris.

    But I’ve always thought learning foreign languages helped me with English, not least by constantly making one think about the basics of syntax. It’s hard to grasp the differences of a foreign language without doing the same for one’s native tongue.

  8. “Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed.”

    The writers must be from another planet and were dumped into the 21th century. If anything, group activities, constructivism and noninstruction are the norm.

    This TIME cover story sounds like a press release from gurus like Alfie and the rest of the progressive anti-knowledge crowd.

  9. I took four years of Spanish, and like the commenter on French, it’s been useful in Spanish speaking countries,
    of which I’ve visited one- Mexico. And to impress my goddaughter when I could ask where the bathroom was in a Mexican resaurant *without embarassing her*… that was priceless. Living in America means we can travel extensively and never leave the country… and when I went to Amsterdam a few years back, everyone seemed to speak English too! Heck, I loved the bars- instead of the ubiquitous
    TV on a sports channel (ech!) there was a TV with the National Geographic Channel- in English. I couldn’t come up with a cogent argument for my daughter to take a foreign languagen when she was in High School, and still can’t.

  10. Wayne Martin says:

    Ditto the above comments for the most part. I found Latin to be one of the most important “foreign” language I’ve taken. Of you can’t remember vocabulary well, foreign language study is more of a wash than not.

  11. I’d say that in California, Spanish and Cantonese Chinese are the two most useful languages you could learn. But then, our state is supposed to 50% Spanish speaking by 2020.

    My sister learned conversational Spanish through an immersion course in the summer at UCSC. She majored in landscape architecture and uses Spanish all the time. Bilingual skills in some language (Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese) are also essential in just about every area of health care and in most trades in the golden state. Without knowing what your future career will be, it’s difficult to know if a language will be useful or not – that would be my argument for having every student in high school prove competency in a second language in addition to English.

  12. Learning a foreign language makes clear quite a lot of the structure of one’s own language. I’ve only ever even looked at the structure of Indo-European languages, so I don’t know how helpful to one’s English learning Hebrew, Mandarin, Korean or Arabic might be. But even if the language is promptly forgotten once the AP exam is over, the knowlege of grammar remains, and will improve the learner’s English.

    Working in groups is largely a scam. The “real world” doesn’t do group work the way most schools seem to – a manager who assigns a team to a project will be aware of which team members are slacking and which are doing work above and beyond, and will reward them accordingly – none of that “everyone gets the same grade” nonsense so many schools put forth. On the other hand, it does provide an object lesson on the inevitable failure of socialism via the free-rider problem, so some group work is probably useful as a learning experience.

  13. Language is an incredibly useful tool for understanding the world and communicating with those in it. It would stand to reason that schools should prepare children as thoroughly as possible to comprehend and generate it. We should not only know how to use our language, but also to analyze it for what it can teach us about culture and history. (What is modern day American English? A hodge-podge of Old English, Old Norse, Latin, and a smattering of many others thrown in. The words “boss” and “cookie”, for example, come from the usage in Dutch New Amsterdam.)

    Language is a vehicle for understanding others, both literally (what is that person saying to me?) and on a deeper level. Americans don’t have to reach full fluency in order to communicate with others – but I feel we should learn enough to show that we are making an effort. And yes, not having enough foreign language speakers can have real consequences for the country. Our lack of skilled Arabic speakers who can act as translators in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

  14. The rest of the world pats themselves on the back because they speak more than 1 language. What’s the big deal – if they spit, it lands in another country. Our country is so big, we can travel quite a distance before needing to speak another language.

    The trouble is, the teaching of language has been limited to “professional educators” – those who have a degree in a language, and certification. What we need to do is take advantage of those people who are reasonably multi-lingual in languages used in our communities – Arabic, Chinese, Rumanian, etc. Let’s open up the teaching monopoly to non-certified – and also bring language instruction into the grade schools, where, if taught, the students are young enough to benefit from it. What good does it do to teach it in high school for the first time? Kids will seldom be able to become even marginally fluent at that age.

  15. As an ex-linguist, I can tell you that learning a foreign language to proficiency takes a lot of time, especially if one is learning it without the benefit of immersion. One has to give up some other pursuit. So learning a language has to be made a priority above other worthwhile pursuits. And in the United States there is little payoff for knowing a foreign language.

    As much as I enjoy learning foreign languages, I do wonder if I’d be better off studying mechanics or delving into history, etc. And many people confuse learning some phrases and pronunciation with actually learning the language to proficiency. My point is, I don’t think those here in the U.S. who decide to forego hours of studying a foreign language are less consciencious world citizens.

    That said, I love being able to read foreign language news sites and blogs.

  16. superdestroyer says:


    In my expereince, most of the people who claim to be “Spanish Speakers” are not really Spanish speakers. They know a couple of hundred word of “Kitchen Spanish,” usually do not know proper verb conjugation, and in many instances only know slang or vulgar terms for things like body parts.

    Hospitals have to be very careful in using using translators who are not formally trained in a language because they could easily end up causing problems by using vulgar terms.

  17. Here is a link to an interesting BBC Council publicaton called “English Next.” One point here is that native English speakers who speak only English will be at a disadvantage in a global economy in which competitors will speak English as well as at least one other language.

  18. Another vote for Latin…I’ve found it to have been far more useful than the four years of German I also took.

    But, we need to return to the basics in English. We are turning out generations who have no idea of sentence structure, proper use of punctuation, and a very limited vocabulary. And the substitution of ‘literature’ as defined by the current P.C. mavens for the classics means that much of the basics of our culture is not being transmitted to the coming generations.

  19. Catch Thirty Thr33 says:

    First, KateCoe’s crowing about how French sounds “so cultured”. Surprise: ANY language does. I know that French language snobs frown and scowl with contempt on the mere “harsh sound” of German and Russian (the two languages with which I am most familiar) but everytime I have used these languages when conversing with Germans and Russians, they are quite surprised to hear a native English speaker using them, much less taking the time to learn them. Knowing another language (any language), especially here in the United States, puts you a “cut above”.
    To others’ statements that learning English is most necessary, that other languages are not necessary to learn, and so forth: you may be right. Everytime I visited Seoul when living in Korea I was stopped by students of English who wanted to practice their language skills all over the place. The same was true with my visits to Tokyo and Beijing.
    Even so, I did what I could to pick up even a bit of the local language, even if just passing through, as a courtesy.
    What I would like to see happen is a two-pronged approach to language study in the United States: all students learning Spanish, French and Portuguese from Kindergarten on. The idea being that if the population of the United States can, on average, travel from Barrow to Tierra del Fuego without any concern whatsoever, the better it will be to do business with them. The second prong would be the introduction of other elective languages beginning in, say, the ninth grade or so, and those languages can be as diverse as the immigrant population of the United States can make it. (Surely we can find part time teachers proficient in Hindi, Romanian, or many other languages, right here in this country, who would be willing to teach their skills to students even on a part time basis?)
    Yes, English is a lingua franca in many fields to include business, but I think it would be an even larger advantage to have a large population of citizens conversant in other languages as well to retain commercial advantages.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Given that there is a limited number of hours in a school day, which of them would you cut out in order to insert more language training?

  21. I studied Spanish and German in high school, then Russian, before getting degrees in Anthropology. I’ve translated Russian SF into English.
    Part of the problem with foreign language study is the way it came to be taught after the MLA ‘reforms,’ and the ‘Audio-Lingual method. My state changed methods (over the objections of my very good high school teacher) between my first and second years of Spanish, and we were _forced_ to go back to the first year ALM textbook in the second year and parrot phrases like “me llamo Juan” when we were already half way through an adapted version of “Amalia.” Total waste of time. Of course, my teachers had already provided excellent instruction in English grammar. This was 1964.
    In terms of everyday use, I first made extensive use of Spanish on a trip to Italy. That, and German, and an English-Italian dictionary kept me functional in Sardinia (in Rome everyone I met spoke English, including the proprietor of the local Russian language book store.) There are also interesting telenovelas and movies. My Russian proved useful in Kenya. And there’s the Russian language TV channel here in the US now (which would have been very useful to me 20 years ago.) Mostly I speak Russian to people here in the US who now speak very good English. And, of course, I cn read t he Russian websites and SF novels.
    But I would advise ignorning foreign language study until at least high school and concentrate on math. Kids at some schools in MA are only recommended to learn the multiplication tables by the third grade and I’m not certain about long division. Can their teachers understand the math and reasoning behind Maxwell’s equations?

  22. Catch Thirty Thr33 says:

    Richard Aubrey – Easy. I would gut the number of hours in the school day dedicated slavishly to athletics. That should be an after school/weekend activity. Besides, we need to get back to the notion that schools are about providing education and knowledge to people, and that they are not primarily training arenas for sports.

  23. I find being fluent in Mathematics is quite helpful. Perhaps we can increase proficiency in this also.

  24. I am pretty sure that study of a foreign language (no matter which one) develops certain parts of the brain that aren’t developed otherwise, which is why it is easier for those who learned more than one language when they were young to pick up another when they are older. Also, knowing a language gives you insight into other cultures (for example, arabic has no “to be” verb) and certain languages, especially arabic or chinese guarrantee you a job in certain fields.
    Also, the earlier a foreign language is taught, the easier the student will learn it, so I feel it should be taught as early as possible because that will make achieving fluency much easier. And Latin qualifies as much as any other language, as it is the language that science is based upon.

  25. wayne martin says:

    I decided to download and read this paper:

    After a few pages, it seemed to me that the writing seemed to be close to that of a marketing person writing “collateral” material for a product launch. So, I searched for the author to see what else he had written, and found that he is the owner of a company that sells “English”:

    David Graddol:

    I have only barely gotten started, so it’s too early to have anything to say about his views.