Reprioritizing Language

In our country, we have a strained relationship with foreign language. What should be looked upon as a non-threatening embrace of multiculturalism is sometimes seen as a direct attack on assimilation. I don't know why - learning a second language (or more!) shows intellectual advantages for both children and adults, not to mention added competitiveness in the global marketplace. In fact, the number of jobs that prefer or require a second language is growing rapidly. Don't blame the bodega operator down the street - blame the internet, the global supply chain and international free shipping.

Despite that, however, America still has a lot of catching up to do in how we learn language. When I was young, my first opportunity to learn a language in school started in the ninth grade, where I was presented with a choice between Spanish, French and German. By this time, schools have already missed out on the most fecund point at which children learn languages, which is an entire decade earlier. My aforementioned husband says he had a different experience, having been taught by a native Castillian speaker, but I'm pretty sure if someone held a gun to his head and demanded he speak a few Spanish sentences I'd be single. Another key difference - he went to a, let's say, not inexpensive private school. I was at a humble public school. As it does with so many things in America, money can make the difference.

We're not faring much better in the years since I graduated - we're teaching earlier, but not by much. In the public school district where I now live, Spanish is being taught in the first grade as a mandatory part of the curriculum, but we live in an affluent neighborhood. In a neighboring district, which is much poorer, the students can barely graduate on time, so understaffed are the classrooms. Budgets are getting slashed, and we're still missing out on some critical languages. Most students, as I was, are offered and take European languages, but the most significant business growth in the immediate future will be in the Asia-Pacific region.

It's not just the lack of teaching, but the method. The way language is taught abroad is so different. I was taught by an American who got a degree in a foreign language both for my Spanish and French studies in high school, until I got to the collegiate level. In other countries, native speakers are hired from abroad so students aren't simply learning grammar and vocabulary by rote, but rather the subtleties of language, as well. I'll show you, as an example, two English learners from Korea. They happen to be members of the k-pop group BTS (perhaps you've seen them on TV lately?). Being able to speak English is critical for their business success outside of Asia, and you'll see how they talk about their instruction in this brief video:

Take a moment and think about this. The tutor on the right, himself an English learner, obviously got a lot of instruction in not just the word, but in different ways of saying it to get different meanings across. He was taught in such a way that he understands not just the literal meaning of "Pardon," but that the pause in front is pregnant with meaning. He was taught well enough that he was able to teach it back to the learner on the left. In fact, listen to the tutor's accent. He sounds nearly native! Good for you, RM :) N.B. This was all a subtle ruse to get you to watch something in the k-pop orbit.

Our classroom instruction is sorely lacking in this regard. The biggest deficit epidemic I see in the use of second languages in the workplace is the fear of using it. When presented an opportunity to begin using their foreign language skills, I see so many people shy away. This is critical, because you really can't retain your skills if you don't continue to put them to use outside of the classroom. Even in low-pressure situations, where I ask them to just say a couple of words, there is extreme hesitation. What use was the instruction, then?

Just as we've spent time talking about the terrible lack of STEM skills in our schools, this is an overlooked, but very important area that we must consider. What do you think?


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