English is not enough
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Mar 17 16:27:31 UTC 2007
English Is Not Enough
LONDON, March 16, 2007
Ah, high school Spanish. I learned how to recite the Spanish alphabet, and
how to make it known that I wanted to leave class to visit the men's room.
That's about all. I grew up in a U.S. suburb with a large Hispanic
population. Yet, despite having a seemingly good reason to want to learn
Spanish, and constant prodding from teachers and parents, I made a lot of
visits to the men's room. I wasn't that good at Spanish, and I didn't much
care. When I started my freshman year in college, a placement test put me
in my place, which turned out to be Spanish 101 the class for beginners,
all over again. What if I had started learning at the age of seven? By
2010, every kid that grows up in the British school system will have to
learn a foreign language from the ages of seven to 14. I think American
kids should too.
Small Continent, Many Languages
Britain's education secretary has backed a government-commissioned study
that encouraged this change as part of an upcoming curriculum overhaul. As
is, the U.K.'s youth are subjected to foreign language classes for one
year, around age 11. At 14, the age when we as Americans enter high
school, it becomes an optional subject and, not surprisingly, a pretty
unpopular one. The thinking behind the policy shift is this: "Making
language study compulsory from seven to 14 will give pupils seven years to
build up their knowledge, confidence and experience," according to
Secretary Alan Johnson. It's also a piece of catch-up policy for the
Brits. As Lord Dearing, the British parliamentarian who headed the study
that recommended the change, said: "The rest of Europe is starting at
seven, it's about time we did." Europe is small; Britain is separated by
only a few hundred miles from a lot of other countries where English is
not the mother-tongue, and it's bound to them through the European Union.
The United States is huge. Many Americans can drive fly even for hours and
not touch down in a place where anything but English is required of them,
so it may seem less important for our kids to speak another language. We
should teach them anyway.
For English's Sake
Studying a second language is not only about learning to speak Spanish or
French, it's about studying language the way words work together. I did
eventually become interested in learning Spanish, thanks to a good
professor in my 101 class. Throughout high school, I struggled to
comprehend the rules of English grammar. When I finally started digesting
my Spanish lessons, I found myself suddenly understanding the rules that
govern my own language. Because we learn our native language by growing up
with it, the rules of our own grammar can be abstract and hard to grasp.
Learning a second language seeing parallel rules and patterns clearly laid
out provides a point of reference. I started thinking about my own
language analytically for the first time. So there's my response to all of
those who would argue valuable class time should not be wasted teaching
foreign languages to American children.
Look Around You
Immigration is a touchy topic on both sides of the Atlantic, I assure you.
Whether you think it makes our nation stronger, or you believe it's
eroding our values and social systems, it is an undeniable fact of life.
Latinos are now the largest minority population in the United States and
regardless of new legislation, fences, and Minutemen in lawn-chairs at the
border that is not going to change. So, whether you like it or not, many
of you will be living near Latinos. Even if you don't live among Spanish
speakers, or if you firmly believe there is no reason to speak any
language but English in the United States, the Americas are inevitably
becoming more interlinked, economically and socially. President Bush is
helping that process along by pushing trade pacts with countries south of
the border. He came into office vowing to create stronger ties with Latin
American nations, and he's just returned from a trip to further that
cause. I landed my first job mostly because I speak a second language. The
value of the skill in the U.S. job market is going to increase. Why not
give every kid in the country a real chance to try for that skill?
Why So Young?
Because it's easier. Children's brains are like sponges, they absorb
whatever is around them. According to a 2006 study by the American
Educational Research Association, "young children tend to absorb
relatively easily any language that they are surrounded by, and they
appear to learn to speak a new language more easily than adults do." The
group is careful to point out the fairly obvious fact that attempting to
teach a seven-year-old rules of grammar, of any language, is probably a
futile exercise. "A few hours a week of foreign language instruction
focusing on learning words, songs, and a few ritualized exchanges is good
for cultural exposure and appreciation, but do not expect real mastery,"
the study warns. But, "age-appropriate" language instruction does give
kids a big advantage down the road, one cited by the U.K. education
secretary: confidence. Kids do pick up accents and pronunciation, and it
sticks. This is the stuff that if you're trying to learn it in a class of
25 other 13-year-olds can be pretty embarrassing; embarrassing enough to
prompt a teen to give up on a language without giving it a fair chance.
English Isn't Enough
Finally, I wish to dispel a myth: That everyone who matters in the world
now speaks English, so it's pointless to learn any other language. The
world is getting smaller, yes, and it's true that many nations now teach
their kids English. It is a luxury to not have to learn English because
you already speak it. And, indeed, if you get into the business world and
sit down at a table with a bunch of foreigners, they may envy you for not
having spent hours learning your own, rather difficult, language. Your
smugness may fade, however, as the Japanese guy and the Moroccan woman
trade jests in French about the lazy American who only speaks his own
language. Or, as Lord Dearing's report puts it: "As English becomes a mass
commodity, it loses its uniqueness. The more educated and skilled people
of all nationalities can operate in English, the less the advantage of
being a native speaker, and especially a monolingual one."
Speaking English as a mother tongue should be a reason to learn a second
language, not an excuse to ignore the rest. And it's not just for business
types. Remember, the world is getting smaller. Again, from the British
government report: "In an age of increasing complexity and accelerating
change, society needs people who are both confident in themselves and who
are willing and able to engage with others on their own terms, and with an
understanding of their actions, their values and what matters to them.
Learning a language is the gateway to this." The United States is the most
powerful, and still, believe it or not, one of the most respected
countries in the world. I hope that doesn't change. The kids are the
future, and the future won't have subtitles.
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