French language McDonald's door signTa-Nehisi Coates, amid his first trip to France after a couple of years of studying French, recently wondered what we expect when we teach foreign languages prior to college. Almost no one reaches a level where their foreign language is practically useful. So are kids wasting their time? Should they be spending more time on foreign language than sports and other pointless extracurricular activities so they can achieve a higher proficiency?

Learning a foreign language as an adult has provoked lots of thoughts on these questions. The value of multilingualism hardly needs a defense; on a global scale, better knowledge of foreign languages facilitates commerce and makes international political relations more democratic by mitigating the effects of linguistic imperialism. On an individual level, it’s one of the most mind-opening intellectual experiences a person can have; there’s no better way to find the edges of your own mental universe, and to discover how profoundly your language shapes your worldview. You will probably learn the nuts and bolts of your own language’s grammar in ways you never understood previously. It actually makes you smarter. It makes you feel cultured; there’s nothing quite like reading books and conversing with people in your second language.

But it’s very, very hard. Or perhaps more precisely, it’s long. I don’t think language study is actually that difficult, but learning it outside an immersion environment takes a long time and a level of effort that is rarely advertised in Rosetta Stone ads. As Coates points out, even if you took two or three years of a foreign language in high school, and even if you had a great teacher who used an immersion method, it’s still unlikely you would come out confident enough to have a conversation in a foreign country. So if primary education is going to do the job, it’d take a lot more resources beginning a lot earlier on.

Then there’s the global reality: if you’re a native English speaker, you have very little external incentive to master a second language, and that will continue to be so even as China and India rise in economic stature. Sure, we’re basically a bilingual (English-Spanish) nation already, and there’s work to be had for people who know French, Arabic, or Chinese. Of course more bilingualism would make Americans more culturally unified and economically competitive. But it’s impossible to say it’s a necessity, or that the U.S. suffers any great political or economic harm if most of us don’t learn any of those. English is on top, and way on top, for the forseeable future.

So the picture is a bit disheartening for those of us who have been converted to the glorious possibilities of language learning: most of the benefits are personal and intangible, and educating large numbers of Americans in foreign languages is expensive, requires considerable effort from students, and is not obviously “necessary.” Considering that we already so woefully under-invest in even more basic foundations of education in this country, is there any hope whatsoever that it could be a priority? What’s a reasonable expectation?

A few thoughts:

— We should continue to advocate for language study on the basis that is culturally enriching and intellectually stimulating, both of which are at least as important as any instrumental economic concern. It makes kids smarter, more culturally aware, and (perhaps less importantly) gives them an advantage if they need a second language in their future line of work. I think Spanish should be mandatory in most of U.S., and others should be available as resources allow. Even if the fight against education becoming instrumentalized knowledge-production is ultimately quixotic, let’s resist as long as we can.

— Language education would be much more effective if it began at the beginning, and that wouldn’t necessarily be expensive. You don’t need a fluent Spanish teacher to teach preschoolers uno, dos, tres, or that a dog is also a perro. (As much as we all love to hate it, think Dora the Explorer.) The internet and iPads exist, and that means every Disney movie ever dubbed in every language ever is right there on YouTube. The younger the kids, the faster they learn, and it would probably be relatively painless to have many American kids knowing basic Spanish before they even get to high school.

— High school curriculum should focus on interaction rather than book-work. (See this article I wrote recently about why the French school system fails at teaching English.) You shouldn’t get a “lecture” in Spanish class, and shouldn’t be spending most of your time memorizing rules. High school students should be doing interactive activities, watching movies with subtitles, and practicing with not-very-hard-to-find native Spanish speakers. If all they’re getting is a few semesters, it should be like a “travel Spanish” or “travel French” class: focused on learning basic interactions that might actually happen in their future. (I realize this is more difficult for harder languages like Arabic or Chinese, which may require more years of groundwork and extracurricular study.)


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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

7 Responses to What’s the Point of Teaching Foreign Languages?

  1. Rich Goldstein says:

    A joke foreign language teachers tell: “What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.”

  2. Johan says:

    My favorite book on this specific topic (why learn a foreign language: that is, actual reasons & motivations) is this: The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning, by David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill. I reviewed it here.

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  4. Joel says:

    Worth talking about, for sure. I think you might be missing out on the discussion about bilingual education (maybe because the US is not super enthusiastic about it — it has actually been banned in several states), however, which is I think a much more ideal way to get kids learning languages than teaching basic vocab or having them watch movies. FL-medium instruction beginning at an early age is probably far more effective than “language as a subject.” In the US — and France, as you describe it — foreign languages tend to be approached as subjects to be mastered (think of all the AP tests for various languages), which isn’t conducive to using language for real-world communication.

    That being said, there has been a huge movement toward communicative and task-based language learning, and while it may take a while to see results (if at all), most language teachers around the world are aware of the benefits of a communicative approach even if institutional constraints don’t always allow it.

    I’ll second the recommendation of David Smith’s books. Also very worthwhile is Spirituality, Social Justice, and Language Learning, edited by Smith and Terry Osborn.

  5. ramirez says:

    A thing I’ve thought about recently is to remember to refrain from excluding audiences and markets. Some audiences on facebook, e.g. the Japanese or Korean, with millions of users. Obviously there are difficulties where admins do not speak their fan’s native language. But think about it: just one once-a-week translator could build an extra 10,000 followers. Isn’t that worth it?

  6. Haylett says:

    A thing I’ve thought about recently is to remember to refrain from excluding audiences and markets. Some people on twitter, e.g. the Japanese, with plenty of fans. Yes, there are difficulties where promotors don’t speak their fan’s native language. But think about this: just one part-time translator could build an extra 10,000 customers. Why shouldn’t we consider that?

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