Saturday, July 22, 2006

Learning Languages in the United States by Guest Blogger Penny Milbouer

German to English translator Penny Milbouer has generously agreed to be the first guest blogger on Brave New Words. Ms. Milbouer is currently a paralegal in the health section of a large, international law firm. She holds an undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College and received her doctorate from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Ms. Milbouer translated into English the memoirs of Michael Wieck, A Childhood Under Hitler and Stalin, Memoirs of a "Certified" Jew, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Here Ms. Milbouer discusses reasons for the lack of language education in the United States.

Learning Languages in the United States by Penny Milbouer:

One of the first things an educated European notices about Americans is that most of us do not speak or even care to learn to speak a language other than English. Immigrants, understandably, struggle to learn English and often their children speak little or only a word or two of the parents' tongue. Why, someone asked me recently, are foreign languages so poorly taught or not taught at all in so many schools and universities here? Although much has changed over the last thirty years since I first started teaching university-level German, much has not changed: our geography, our history, our culture, our attitudes towards acquiring fluency in a second language, our misunderstanding about what bilingualism is, our politics, even our religious fundamentalism.

There are many reasons why foreign languages traditionally are not taught at all or are taught reluctantly in this country. Here are a few reasons:

1. Geography: We are a large, large country (consider: the state of Texas is the size of France; we cover six time zones). Unlike as in Europe where speaking a foreign language, no matter how badly, is necessary if one travels even the shortest distance, many Americans are really shocked when they travel to, say, Mexico and are confronted with Spanish signs and Spanish speakers everywhere.

2. History: Speaking a foreign tongue is not seen as a desired accomplishment. Speaking a foreign language is associated with being an immigrant, and usually a poor immigrant.

3. Culture: "Everyone speaks English anyway." And generally that English is American English. English is already the lingua franca of many industries, such as in aviation. Even if both the controller and the pilot are Chinese in China, the language used is English. It's the lingua franca in much of the business world; in the oil industry; in the import/export business (a Taiwanese broker of raw materials will e-mail his seller in Peru to bid on the contract -- in English and then sell the raw material, by e-mail contract in English, to the manufacturer in China). If everyone speaks English anyway, parents aren't going to insist on a program in the schools and certainly not a broad or deep program. School boards are hard pressed to fund legislated mandates and foreign language is rarely mandated.

4. Attitude: There is very strong pressure to conform. The pressure is especially strong and unchallenged in places where there aren't many foreign-language speakers or where there are foreign-language speakers and they do not belong to the economic elite. There is something vaguely subversive and unpatriotic, even dangerous, if one speaks a foreign language fluently because it is somehow odd, not normal. This isn't unique to the United States. It's just more widespread and perhaps more open. When I lived in Canada, a Francophone friend of mine was traveling to western Canada and was told "to speak white."

5. Misunderstanding: Many Americans assume that "bilingual programs" assure bilingual fluency. Where Spanish and English are taught well, that is true. However, too many programs aim to turn monolingual Spanish-speaking children into more or less monolingual English-speaking children. Bad pedagogy and bad curriculum planning and a lack of understanding of what it takes to learn a foreign language is common. All too often a student who has had one or two years of high school Spanish will switch to French, ending up then with only two years of French. You simply do not learn more than just enough to forget in two years. When I taught at the university level, students were just flabbergasted that after four years of high school French at one of the better public schools, they could not place out of beginning French. Needless to say, this is discouraging and the student simply gives up and takes a communications course in "Listening." However, the most stunning example of misunderstanding what it means to study a foreign language I encountered when I was speaking to the vice president of the state university where I was teaching. "Oh yes," he told me proudly, after he had closed down the foreign language program, "Rest assured, we still have our language arts program." [Students who want certification to become elementary school teachers must learn how to teach reading or "language arts."]

6. Politics: Educational politics often mean that many high schools don't teach foreign languages or no more than two years of a foreign language. Universities no longer have the luxury of requiring even a two-year minimum of a foreign language to enter college; they would have to reject otherwise bright and brilliant candidates. Therefore, many universities, even elite, private ones, have dropped the requirement. Most universities no longer require evidence of any level of mastery to graduate. If universities do not require a foreign language and if there is no state requirement, guidance counselors at the high school level are under no pressure to encourage their college-bound pupils to sign up for a foreign language.

There are also the politics of resentment and fear. The recent Congressional resolution to make English the official language of the United States may have its merits, but it is embedded in the current debate over illegal immigration from Central America. One recent news story reported that the owner of a popular Philadelphia cheesesteak joint posted a sign that reminded customers they are in America and only orders in English would be filled.

7. Religious Fundamentalism: "The Bible is written in English." This is one of the least excusable reasons for not having foreign languages in our school curriculum but for many a perfectly valid one. Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas in the 1920s, long ago but not long enough, said, "If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me." This attitude certainly was alive and well when I was teaching at the university level twenty-five years ago. Given the current religious climate in the United States, this belief that God speaks English -- that is, American English -- can easily be found today.

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