Class Struggle – Why waste time on a foreign language?

Why waste time on a foreign language?

[This is my Local Living section column for April 22, 2010.]

My online discussion group, Admissions 101, recently exchanged verbal blows over foreign language courses in high school. Most of us defended the conventional wisdom. Learning another language improves cognitive development, we said. It enhances academic skills, encourages a sense of the wider world and looks good to colleges.

But the dissenters scored some points. “It is a waste of time and money in our schools,” said a parent who remembered seeing empty language lab stalls. A high school teacher said that “language study is complete nonsense for most people. I’d wager close to 80.percent of kids taking foreign languages in high school do so because they have to.”

How much do they learn? There is little evidence that many students achieve much fluency in high school.

It wasn’t until I decided I wanted to be a reporter in China that I got serious about grammar, vocabulary and accent in a foreign tongue. It was very difficult, another reason why high school language students don’t get very far.

How students still look good on their report cards is easy to explain. Because much of the world is striving to learn English, Americans wonder why they should bother to learn other languages. We talk about the importance of foreign language learning to our national security, but we don’t mean it. If if we need speakers of exotic tongues, we import them.

You can tell right away this guy is in Washington, D.C. in the way that he talks out of both sides of his mouth. Take a stance, man!

He makes some great points, but let’s read around what he said to eek them out.

(1) Language learning is best accomplished when it is based on an immediate need or desire to learn (job, deployment, girlfriend/boyfriend).

(2) Isolated high school programs do little to produce “fluent” speakers of the language. Anyone will tell you that it’s a tall order for someone to become “fluent” in 4 years of minimal study. This is why feeder programs are essential. We should be teaching languages from kindergarten in K-12. Before that, parents should be teaching their kids foreign languages from birth (slight exaggeration, but only slight).

He’s overall tone is very negative towards language learning (for the general public–applying to universities). He states that we (the U.S.) imports foreign language specialists when we need them. That is absolutely true. However, he sees the past with little insight into the future (or the present). It’s not that we have to worry about who will do the language work in the States, we have to worry about marketing ourselves and getting jobs abroad. Do you really think that being monolingual (even if it is the “global language” of English) will get you very far? Hell, most of these companies are headquartered in non-English speaking countries these days.

You want to go into finance? Learn Chinese or another East Asian language.

You want to go into technology? Multilingual Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Asians are going to eat your lunch.

You want to go into science? ….ok, you can probably get by with English-only, for now.

Why waste time on a foreign language? I’ll tell you why. Even if your parents were clueless enough not to prep you early to learn a second language (any language), exposure to language learning in school can start you down the path of figuring out how to learn languages. It can plant the seed of interest, or at least, get you to better know yourself, your interests, and how you best learn.

Sometimes, I just want to smack some sense into these myopic buffoons. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll knock their blinders off so they can see that there is a world outside of their suburban hell.

Wow, that rant felt good.

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