Is the US foreign language educ ational system doing a “bad job”

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 1 16:27:45 UTC 2008

Is the US foreign language educational system doing a "bad job"
June 30, 2008 - 1:29 pm
 Filed under: foreign language educational policy, bilingual ed, studying
foreign language
 According to Barack Obama, yes….

"We as a society do a really bad job of teaching foreign language and it's
costing us in the global marketplace," he said.
 "When it comes to second-language learners, the most important thing is not
to get bogged down in ideology, but figure out what works," he said
"Everybody should be bilingual, or everybody should be trilingual."
 Many foreign countries start teaching kids as young as eight another
language. In the U.S., many students do not start taking another language
until they are 14, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a
non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

Ahem…  try age 5…

 While I am not one to defend US educational policy, particularly as deals
with foreign language learning.  Given my profession, one would accurately
guess that I'm a huge advocate for more emphasis being placed on FL-learning
in US schools.  I do, however, want to split hairs with his (grossly
simplified) analysis…  Actually, in terms of teaching effectiveness, meaning
methodology and resources, I think FL teachers in the US do an incredible
job.  Why then, do we have so very few kids with more than rudimentary FL
skills?  Simple, really — we don't demand such from them.  As a nation, we
have yet to really demand more from the public education sector than the
most basic of FL skills.  Most school systems don't demand any FL classes to
graduate, and those that do (or colleges that require it for entrance)
typically require 2 years of HS classes.  Such is not going to make for a
bilingual society…

 The "problem" (so to speak) is simple economics.  Schools typically reflect
the demands of the workplace (although, to be fair, they often have a 20-30
year lag), and there has been little demand for foreign language skills in
the US workplace.  Politicians often talk about educational policy in terms
of infinite possibility.  They want the schools to handle everything — they
want children to achieve the entirety of human potential between
kindergarten and 12th grade, however, the truth is, schools are limited…
 The greatest limitation in education is not, as one always seems to hear
from media, school councils, etc. financial ones.  Instead, the limitation
on learning that is most profound is time.  Schools are given a limited
amount of hours each day, a set number of days each year, and 12 total years
into which to pack a heck of a lot of learning.  While everyone would love
it if schools could pack the entirety of the human experience into each
child, tie it off with a bow, and send them packing to college, in the real
world, what that time limitation means is prioritizing what you most want
children to learn.  Different societies value different skills and
knowledges (to a point), and their educational systems reflect this.  The US
educational system, long ago, made a conscious decision to embrace the
sciences, and especially computing technologies, at the expense of language
education (mind you, some schools still suck at teaching science — I'm not
denying that some schools are simply in trouble).  This was a response to
market forces that said that it was ultimately more important that adults
know how to type, for instance, than to speak French.  Contrast this with
Europeans, with whom the American education system is often negatively
compared — especially in the realm of FL learning.  Dutch high school grads
usually have to attain at least basic proficiency in at least 2 languages
other than Dutch (one is usually English) — and most will usually have
mastered at least one of the two.  Most Dutch children start foreign
language lessons at the very beginning of elementary school.  Many hours of
instruction and practice transpire over the course of primary and secondary
schooling.  This is an economic necessity for the Netherlands, however.
 Their commitment to speaking the languages of their neighbors (and the
world, in general) keeps them economically relevant in the world, as not
many people are clamoring to learn Dutch (a lovely language, btw — I speak a
bit and I highly recommend it!).  However, these hours come at a cost.
 Across Europe, adults crowd into night schools to get computer instruction
that most Americans would find incredibly remedial.  I was absolutely
shocked at the content of what my corporate students in Spain were learning
in night classes.  It was literally stuff that I had learned in high school
(although updated as it was roughly 10 years later) — MS Word applications,
spreadsheets, and the like…

 The rules of the game seem to be changing, however, and as FL proficiency
becomes more and more prized over a variety of professions, US schools will
find themselves under increased pressure from business and local communities
to devote more and more time and resources to FL learning.  As much as
people in my profession would like to wave a magic wand and make that happen
overnight, only market forces can truly cause a national shift towards an
embrace of foreign language learning.  I think we are on the way…  Childhood
FL programs, immersion schools, and the like are certainly on the rise
across the US.  Languages like Chinese and Arabic — which previously were
barely taught at all before the university level — have been popping up in
school systems across the US.

 My dream: What I would truly like to hear from politicians is not another
"we should add such-and-such to the curriculum" speech…  Instead, I'd be
truly impressed to hear a politician suggest what should be dropped from the
curriculum in order to make room for the teaching/learning of more relevant
skills for tomorrow's marketplace.
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