No habla foreign languages

Fewer students are learning a foreign language in elementary or middle school compared to 1997, concludes a federally funded report by the Center for Applied Linguistics. In high schools, foreign language instruction has held steady.

Spanish is the most popular language by far. Some schools are dropping French and German, reports the New York Times. Once fashionable Russian and Japanese classes are vanishing in favor of Arabic and Chinese.

This year it’s expected more students will take the Advanced Placement test in Chinese than in German, taking over the number three spot after Spanish and French.

It’s not just an issue in the U.S.  Learning a foreign language is becoming “the privilege of elite and wealthy children,” a British government adviser warned this week. Teens are choosing other electives.

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Comments

  1. Foreign language grammar instruction, in particular, is also in decline– a consequence of the increased emphasis on “communicative competence” and decreased emphasis on translation and written language.

    In combination with the decline in Latin, Greek, German, and Russian instruction–case-based languages whose grammars are particularly different from and challenging to English speakers– the result is a decline in the appreciation of Grammar in general (including that of English).

    Does anyone know whether the new Arabic and Chinese classes that today’s kids are taking address grammatical complexities (e.g., noun classes and verb aspect in Chinese)?

  2. Who can blame them for taking other electives?

    A half-assed introduction to high-school German (or French, or Chinese, etc.) isn’t of great or obvious benefit, especially to people who aren’t already inclined to philology or have some specific inclination to a specific language.

    “Learn a language, any language, because you should learn some language because we say you should or because you have to, now shut up and do it”* isn’t as compelling (cf. the “fashionable” Japanese now switching to Arabic) as “learn this language for this benefit”, where the benefit can be anything from the immediately practical (learning Spanish to talk to work crews) to further intellectual growth (learning Latin for medieval philosophy or the Classics, or French for Renaissance and early-modern literature).

    My experience and observation suggests that for the most part required language courses waste everyone’s time, leaving people with a shoddy grasp of a language they promptly forget almost all of. Those who are enthusiastic and work towards mastery and fluency would presumably elect to take the classes.

    (* Which is pretty much how it comes across, even if there’s a better pedagogical basis for late-teen language studies. The cognitive effects of early-life language studies are another matter… but on the other hand, their lack doesn’t seem to have stopped our forefathers’ intellectual growth.)

  3. My kids have that gift for languages–my son speaks Hungarian (thanks to a year there via AFS), Russian, Spanish, French and English. But the way most languages are taught in schools–he’d never have passed. He and his sister learned baby-sitter Spanish, and can chatter away, but once again–no school would recognize this (even in LA, most schools teach Old World Spanish, rather than what’s actually spoken in Central or South America.)

    I think the ability to learn an other language or to pick them up easily is a special intelligence–I liked Latin, but no one teaches it now.

  4. Cranberry says:

    “The cognitive effects of early-life language studies are another matter… but on the other hand, their lack doesn’t seem to have stopped our forefathers’ intellectual growth.)”

    Huh? Which forefathers? Until the beginning of the 20th century, the better schools taught their academic students Latin & Greek from a young age. I believe “grammar schools” originated to teach children, beginning at age 7, Latin, in preparation for university study.

    “A half-assed introduction to high-school German (or French, or Chinese, etc.) isn’t of great or obvious benefit, especially to people who aren’t already inclined to philology or have some specific inclination to a specific language.”

    Well, the trouble with this argument is, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Japan will still exist when today’s high school students hit the workplace. It’s handy to be able to speak with people in their language, and to read original documents. It’s handy for our economy to have a consistent supply of such people. From a security standpoint, we don’t want to rely solely upon Americans who have family ties to other countries to translate documents and recordings.

    A student who graduates college with 8 years of language study under his or her belt is much more likely to be a fluent speaker than someone who takes 2 years of language, in college, to satisfy a requirement. Also, as many graduate schools require working knowledge of other languages (part of that academic hang-up grad schools have), starting young and getting it out of the way makes sense.

  5. I took German in high school. Not only did I enjoy it, it helped my understanding of more complex grammar and syntax in English.

    I still remember the old Guten Tag shows on PBS early in the mornings….

  6. Latin study in high school is on the rise, actually. It has seen dramatic growth in the last 10 years. Nearly all the suburban public high schools around here offer it. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/nyregion/07latin.html.

    While the world may indeed being going to h-e-double-hockey-sticks in a handbasket, Latin, she’s not dead yet.

  7. Paul Hoss says:

    So why is there less foreign language being taught in our elementary schools today? The economy? School districts across the country are making unprecedented cuts to their budgets due to declining tax revenues and we’re wondering about ancillary programs for our grammar schools? In better economic times these types of programs can be great…but. Perhaps we should focus first on making sure all our high school grads are fluent in English before we concern ourselves with whether some seven year old is learning Chinese.

  8. Paul Hoss says:

    Here is a letter to the editor from this morning’s New York Times:

    ___________________________________

    To the Editor:

    American parents pushing their children to learn Chinese should know that the world is moving to a universal language, and it’s the one Chinese students are learning in their schools: it’s called English.

    I’m trilingual. There was a time when my fluency was of great value in driving international business, but walk into a meeting today and the room, inevitably populated by people from several countries, will have only one common language, and it isn’t Chinese; it’s English.

    To those who want to give a Chinese skill set to their children, I suggest instead a deep knowledge and appreciation of Chinese history, culture and politics. Knowing those areas will not only be profoundly appreciated by the Chinese, but they are also central to understanding the Chinese mentality, problems and style.

    Spend seven years studying Chinese in a classroom in Ohio, then take a Chinese contact to lunch in Shanghai, and I guarantee that after two minutes both parties will slip into English. Spend the rest of that meal discussing the Han Dynasty, or developments in Macao, or the profound Chinese fascination with gambling, and a connection will be made that generates friendship and an enduring interest in meeting again to pursue common goals.

    Ian Jarvis
    New York, Jan. 21, 2010

    The writer is an international trade consultant whose work involves China and the European Union.

  9. Cranberry says:

    If you want a job as an international trade consultant, a knowledge of foreign languages can only help. I don’t think you could get an interview with a reputable firm without at least one, and preferably two, foreign languages.

  10. ” In better economic times these types of programs can be great…but. Perhaps we should focus first on making sure all our high school grads are fluent in English before we concern ourselves with whether some seven year old is learning Chinese.”

    I personally find elementary language training to be too expensive, in the time sacrificed from other subjects. In middle school, however, I don’t think one can defend a curriculum which does not offer foreign languages.

    1) Your logic leads to a “death of a thousand cuts” for education. To teach a foreign language, one needs an instructor, and materials–as one needs for any other subject. Unless you shorten the school day, or institute mammoth study halls, cutting languages doesn’t save money. That time in the classroom carries a cost in terms of personnel and overhead.

    2) Many children are fluent in English long before graduation from high school. I realize the current rage in education is to pretend that extreme mainstreaming is the way to go, but insisting that no child may learn foreign language until all her age mates are proficient in English will only serve to drive more middle-class families from the system. It’s also an insult to the public school system to imply that it’s unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    3) Modern Language Arts (aka English) teachers in the public school system seem to believe that there’s no need to teach grammar. This conviction remains impervious to the desires of college professors and parents for literate high school graduates able to craft a grammatical sentence. For many students, the introduction to concepts such as parts of speech, clauses, and such, takes place in the foreign language class.

    4) The British experience is instructive. The gulf between the government comprehensives and the private schools (which they call public) is growing wider each year. Dropping support for challenging academic areas of study–languages, sciences, mathematics–has only decreased the long-term outcomes for the graduates of government schools.

  11. It’s tough to motivate American kids to learn foreign languages. We live in this big old country, everyone speaks English from one side to the other, and there isn’t a whole lot of practical reason. Spanish is more popular because it’s the most practical, as so many people speak it.

    I can speak a little German because I lived in Switzerland for a while. But here I can’t use it at all. It’s no wonder instruction is in decline with so few speaking it nowadays.

    Dual-language programs that use half English-dominant kids and half L2, probably Spanish-speakers, are a good option that’s used in my home district. My daughter was very successful in such a program, which instructed the kids 50/50 in both languages.

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