Nov 12 2010

Disheartening statistics

In my research of Americans’ non-penchant for learning languages, I came upon a very useful blog that is a part of the New York Times.  They have under their opinion section something called, “Room for Debate”, and within its pages, we find six different takes on the current fad of teaching Chinese to American students.  The first essay is written by Susan Jacoby, who is the author of 9 books, the most recent one entitled, The Age of American Unreason.  She offers a few vital and disheartening statistics.

The first thing she claims is that the rise in instruction offered in Chinese between 1997 and 2008 in the U.S. has only reached 4% (up from 1%).  She calls this a “meaningless statistic” and thinks the whole move for learning Chinese is a temporary fad and empty gesture to our chief competitor.  But then she goes on to reveal some numbers about foreign language instruction and acquisition in general.  “Only 9 percent of Americans, compared with 44 percent of Europeans, speak a foreign language” says Jacoby.

For her comments about the fad of teaching Chinese, based on what I’ve read about the trend of Russian being introduced into our high schools back in the 60s, I’d have to agree with Jacoby.  I have seen almost no evidence of any American actually endeavoring to learn and retain Russian.   Chinese, I do happen to have personally studied.  As an undergraduate, my major was Linguistics & Anthropology, so part of my requirement was to study a non-Slavic, non-Indo-European language.  I figured, why not choose a language as polarized to English as possible?  So I went for Mandarin.  Indeed, Mandarin had an unbelievable amount of novelty to offer.

In the beginning months, we had quizzes every Monday morning which tested us on 20-30 new vocabulary words which in the case of Chinese means, 20-30 new characters or groups of characters.  It would take me 8 hours on Sunday to commit these characters to memory in such a way that I could recognize the character, draw the character if the English word was spoken, or produce the English if the Chinese word was spoken.  My brain simply had no efficient way to catalogue this new symbology.  I was in essence, memorizing pictures and precise ways to draw them (every stroke has a mandatory and logical order).  Here comes the hopeful part.  About 5 or 6 months down the road, after having had 1 hour and 20 minutes of Mandarin 5 days a week, those 8 hours of study time dwindled down to a mere hour and a half.  That is, my brain was finally conditioned to catalogue the new characters in a more efficient manner, which more than quadrupled my productivity.  This was an incredible feat, one that required much discipline, commitment, passion and moreover, excellent teachers and curricula.

Where the romance languages are spoken

The statistic that Jacoby cites about the 9% of Americans as compared with 44% of Europeans who speak a foreign language is not as embarrassing as it would be, if we didn’t take geography into consideration.  The United States, let’s face it, is one huge island.  Europe, on the other hand, has dozens of autonomous nations sitting side-by-side, much like Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida do. Europe is an amalgamation of such an enormous array of languages and cultures in such close proximity.  Many of those countries even have multiple national languages. Switzerland, which is a mere tenth the size of our beloved California, has not two, not three, but four official languages.  French, German, Italian, and Romansch, a little known Romance Language spoken by only 1% of the Swiss population.

These facts notwithstanding, the asset of speaking more than one language fluently is inexorable.  These Europeans are at a major advantage, it’s true. But if we want to exploit the wonderful resources of languages and cultures nearby, we have Mexico, Quebec, and the French-speaking islands in the West Indies.

I can say that in my discussions with the foreign language teachers at the public school where I conducted my fieldwork, I was able to glean a decent amount about the ever-increasing cuts that are being made to foreign language programs nationwide.  Education funding becomes tight and the first subjects that are considered expendable are foreign languages.  While this angers me, I also take it as an opportunity and see that my entrée into teaching is happening at the perfect time.  I would like to see every high school offer Spanish, French and at least one additional modern foreign language, preferably Russian, Italian, or Chinese.  I choose these three because when we reflect on the number of immigrants to this country, especially third and fourth generation Americans, who are missing out on a clearer conception of their own culture, it becomes apparent that we are losing touch with our roots which in turn makes us insensitive to the differences of others.  I will fight for foreign language to be introduced in Kindergarten, which will without question accelerate learning and mastery in the later years.

I am so confident about the fringe benefits of learning a second language.  Just to name a few:  better test scores in all subjects, more advanced vocabulary and reading skills in English, the way the world and its opportunities open up to you, and the expansion of new neural pathways.

Who wants to join me on this journey?