Monday, December 11, 2006

I Still No Hablo Español

A while back I suggested that most of the time students spend studying foreign languages in school is essentially wasted. Kevin Carey seems to agree:
Now, I'm not against global literacy, being sensitive to foreign cultures, etc. I think they're important. But I'm not sure that means it's a problem that only half of high school students are taking a foreign language. I base this on what is admittedly the worst of all sample sizes of one: myself. I took French for six years, starting in the seventh grade and going all the way through high school. In retrospect, it was pretty much a waste of time. I've long since forgotten most of it, and what I remember has been useful only when travelling in French-speaking countries, of which they aren't very many.


All else being equal, students are undoubtedly better off knowing multiple languages than just one. But there are lots of things they're better off knowing than not knowing, the question is which of those things are most important. If foreign languages go onto that list, something else has to come off. It's not clear to me what that should be.

My only real objection is to this bit at the end:

The only exception I could see is Spanish, which is spoken by a large and growing number of Americans. If students were required to take a least a few years of Spanish, they'd have a stronger connection to many of their fellow citizens, as well as most of the rest of the Western hemisphere.
This argument, like so many others in favor of foreign language education, ends up resting on an appeal to cultural sensitivity or affinity, which is not the same thing as language proficiency. And if cultural awareness is so important, what really needs to happen is better desegregation of schools. If we're willing to settle in the short term, we could look into classes dedicated to cultural awareness. In any event, pretending we're teaching a significant number of kids to speak Spanish really doesn't get us anywhere.


Thinker said...

Paul, if High School foreign language instruction is limited to memorization of vocabulary lists, etc.; I guess I have to agree with you.

However, if it is broader and richer than that; for example, exploring the translation of idiom and discovering through language how different peoples see the world in different ways, then I must still respectfully disagree.

If foreign languages are properly taught, and students are engaged by good teachers, they can't help but come away with a feeling for the richness and diversity of human experience; something which probably underlies all good humanities instruction, but is especially significant in language instruction.

A person with such understanding, even though they may not know Arabic, will react much differently on the ground in Iraq than one without it. If nothing else, they will know the importance of learning to speak Arabic.

I served in the army in Vietnam in 1971. I didn't speak Vietnamese, and I wasn't there long enough to learn much, but I distinctly remember the attitudes of most of my fellow soldiers - illustrated by one who shouted out one afternoon while amongst a group of Vietnamese workers on our base - "Why are these people so stupid that they can't speak English?"

Watching the evening news footage from Iraq today, and seeing American troops shouting in English at frightened Iraqis, it doesn't seem much has changed.

Paul said...

Like I said, if it's cultural sensitivity you want, the pretense of teaching kids another language doesn't get you anywhere.

Thinker said...

But Paul, language is a huge part of cultural sensitivity - not the only part certainly - but a big one.

I may be sensitive to your situation, but if I'm unable to communicate with you, our interactions are severely limited.

Now that doesn't mean that we need to speak all 6,000 living human languages, or even the top 10. But it does mean that having learned one (hopefully well), it will be much easier to learn another when the need arises. And, it should certainly be easier to recognize when one needs to know another tongue.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

You know thinker, I haven't been following this thread that closely but I think Paul's whole point it language instruction doesn't actually produce language proficiency. So when you write something like "but if I'm unable to communicate with you, our interactions are severely limited" it makes me wonder if what you really want to argue about is whether Spanish Language classes actually produce students who can speak Spanish. If so why not concentrate on that?

Thinker said...

While I know many don't, I take it for granted that a language class should produce proficient speakers. That many do not tells me that (1) teaching techniques need to be developed to engage students who populate these classes; and (2) we are an exceptionally ethnocentric society. (Unfortunately, Graham Greene's THE UGLY AMERICAN is as relevant today as it was when it was written, perhaps moreso if that is possible.) However, I don't believe that just because a requirement is not fulfilling its purpose, it should be dropped. Why not fix it? For the reasons I cited earlier, we need to find ways to provide language instruction that not only produces proficient speakers, but takes its place as a key component in a "liberal education".

Paul said...

Well, you could "fix" foreign language education, but what would that entail? You don't have to think it through very far before the opportunity costs start to become pretty significant. But, then, that was one of the points made in the Carey post I linked to.

I think there's a deeper point, though, which is that one of the most effective ways to develop foreign language proficiency is to be surrounded by people who speak another language fluently. It's hard to, say, develop proficiency in Spanish without being heavily exposed to Spanish speaking cultures.

So are people who speak Spanish fluently likely to be more sympathetic to Spanish-speaking culture? Sure, but correlation is not causation. How much of that sympathy is a result of the actual language proficiency, and how much is done by exposure to and education about the culture in question?

If exposure to the culture is what's doing most of the work in bringing about sensitivity, that's what ought to be emphasized, not learning the language. Yes, an immersing foreign language curriculum could do a good job of exposing kids to new cultures, but is that really the best way to do that sort of thing? It seems rather clumsy to me, since it's putting all of the emphasis on learning the language and just counting on the culture stuff to sort of penetrate via osmosis.

Thinker said...

Paul, you seem to be missing my point. While a certain level of cultural sensitivity can be taught without learning other languages, knowledge of and fluency in other tongues is mandatory for a deeper understanding of other cultures. In a very real sense, the world we perceive is shaped by language.

Smithsonian/Folkways records has made available a Canadian radio broadcast from the early 1950s that fleshes out this point. It is available at

You can listen to the various tracks online at no charge. Listen to tracks 101-109.

Paul said...

Saying that your point is wrong is not the same thing as missing your point. What I said was: 1) Truly effective foreign language education is probably too costly and cumbersome to be worthwhile and 2) Most of the benefits of cultural sensitivity probably stem not from language proficiency as such, but rather from exposure to different cultures. Those arguments don't miss your point, they're just opposed to it.

Thinker said...

No, they do miss my point, so I'll state it again (hopefully with more clarity).

No matter how much cultural sensitivity you teach in classes taught using the English language, you can only reach a minimal level of awareness of other cultures. Language is a filter we use to construct the image we have of the outside world. Different languages = different filters = different images of the world.

In some ways it is like Plato's allegory of the cave in THE REPUBLIC. ( All we know of the world outside we know from the shadows on the wall; but here I'm saying that the shadows are produced, not by the sun, but by our languages. We can of course know something of other people's world views and perceptions without fluency in their languages, but we are quite limited in that ability because, as languages change, the shadows cast differ. Imagine three people standing next to each other looking at the wall. Person A, speaking English, sees one shadow; person B, speaking French, sees a slightly different one (as these two languages are relatively close); while person C speaking Aleut sees a much different one.

If you're interested, I know of three books (written for general audiences) that explore this phenomenen:

(1) They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases by Howard Rheingold

(2) The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis by Paul Simon (former Senator from Illinois)

(3) How Real is Real?: Confusion, Disinformation, Communication by Paul Watzlawick

Tommaso Sciortino said...

All right thinker. you get a yellow card for too many "links no one is going to click on".

Thinker said...

Too bad, they're worth following.