Monday, September 11, 2006

No Hablo Español

A question that came up while driving back from Pismo Beach* with my girlfriend this weekend: How useful, really, are high school foreign language courses? I took Spanish in the 8th grade, and then for three years in high school. I nonetheless lack even elementary proficiency in Spanish, and my sense is that I am not unusual in this regard.

It's not just that I think that foreign language classes are in many cases treated as a joke - mine were all perfectly serious. It's really that attending class 45 minutes a day, five days a week seems to me like an awfully feeble gesture toward learning a new language, even if the criteria for "learning" are extremely weak.

I do feel like I gained some insight into English grammar in my Spanish classes, but I've yet to discover much utility for the actual Spanish I acquired. What are we hoping kids get out of all the time they spend in foreign language classes in high school?

*While volleyball isn't nearly as boring as baseball, it's much more consistently painful. Sports, as a set, perpetually disappoint.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

I think of highschool spanish as more of "getting your foot in the door" so to speak. Students who want to become serious about spanish later will have a leg up becuase of it.

Paul said...

And I suppose that in California one need only take a year of foreign language or a year of art to get a diploma. So I suppose that's not a super-unreasonable requirement.

Still, California's public universities require two years of foreign language, but I don't see that my undergraduate education benefited at all from my K-12 exposure to Spanish.

Lisa said...

I guess I see it as more "life enrichment" than "Academic enrichment." It helps you know that there are more languages than English in the world, and maybe not be so afraid of those "other" people who don't speak it.

I took 3 years of French in HS and 1 semester in college. Then three years later I went to France, discovered I totally remembered the language (except the conditional tense) and made a bunch of French-speaking friends. It was life-enrichment-y! I also took one year of Italian, which allows me to correct Tom's spelling.

Of course I also majored in linguistics so maybe I have some kind of aptitude or something.

Paul said...

Yeah, I get the impression that you're somewhat exceptional in terms of your aptitude for language. You might be the only person I know who would be able to travel to a foreign country and speak the language fluently enough to become intimate with non-English speakers based only on a few years of high school and a little college. Certainly the only people who took Spanish with me who could do that were the ones who had grown up in a bilingual household.

As for life-enriching-ness in general, it seems like we could address, say, cultural awareness more directly if we abandonded the pretense of developing languange fluency.

Thinker said...

Paul, how can you come to understand someone else's culture if you don't understand his/her language? It seems to me at best what one gets is a narrow perspective that points to something one can't fully experience.

I seem to recall being told (or perhaps reading) that European schools require students to become fluent in two or three languages.

Paul said...

Thinker - the whole point is that most people leave their high school language classes without understanding, in any meaningful sense, the language they were being taught. Certainly, they learn something, but most don't even attain an elementary level of proficiency.

It might be nice if American students were graduating high school only after becoming fluent in an additional language, but that would require a serious re-jiggering of K-12 education in this country.

Also, my understanding of, say, Mexican culture is only moderate, but I don't see why speaking Spanish fluently would help me become any more familiar with it.

Thinker said...

Ok Paul, I'll agree, for the most part students leave foreign language classes in US secondary schools with few skills and little knowledge. Should we do away with foreign language requirements, or make an effort to "re-jigger" our K-12 institutions to make it effective?

Also, how does one develop an understanding of another culture without a proficiency in its language?

Paul said...

I think a better question is, What's the role of language in understanding culture? For most intents and purposes I don't speak Spanish, but many of my students are of Mexican decent, so I'm familiar with much Mexican cooking, celebrations, etc. Certainly, if I spoke more Spanish, I might have more conversations about Mexican culture in Spanish, but really, how crucial is it that I learn even more about Mexican culture?

And do I need to learn every language in order to fulfull my obligations to understand every culture?

Thinker said...

Culture is expressed in art, music, literature, drama, dance, religion, etc. Without language fluency one can certainly experience some aspects of other cultures. But how can one hope to experience foreign literature, song, drama, etc. without language fluency?

As you said, you have some understanding of Mexican cooking, etc. from associating with your students. However, imagine being invited to dinner at one of their homes - especially one where English either isn't spoken, or isn't spoken well. You will learn some things about that family from what you can see, but imagine how much more you would learn if you were fluent in their tongue, and could converse with them. I'm not saying that you'll learn nothing of other cultures if you aren't fluent in their languages, just that what you will learn will be limited and narrow.

It seems to me that this sort of knowledge is absolutely critical in a nation like ours - one doing business in all corners of the globe, and one intervening politically and militarily too. I think that an American occupying force whose soldiers were fluent in Arabic would be doing much better in Iraq - just to give one example.

Paul said...

Your reasoning seems to imply that our high school students should be fluent in perhaps dozens of languages before they graduate high school or college. I think that's very wrong. I don't particularly like American art, and I see no reason why I ought to be more interested in foreign art.

Becoming entirely immersed in a foreign culture can be extremely rewarding, but it's not necessary to live a full life, and it's not an obligation of a responsible citizen.

Personally, I think an American society more familiar with the cultures of the Middle East would not have supported invading Iraq in the first place - foreign language fluency wouldn't have entered into the picture.