Second Language Learning in America
Mary Worell wrote a post on her blog See Mary Teach about students learning a second language in America versus other countries who know at least 3 other languages besides their native tongue.On a recent trip to the grocery store I shyly approached a young man (probably a teenage boy) quietly stocking the shelves. I stammered out my best “Pardon, spreekt u Engels?” to which he replied “a little bit.” I let out a sigh of relief even though I knew the answer before asking – everyone speaks at least “a little bit” of English. I’d been in The Netherlands for long enough at that point to recognize a Polish accent when he spoke. I needed help figuring out what to do with my produce since a sign covered up the scale where I normally weighed my fruit and obtained my price. While this young man’s English language skills weren’t perfect, he still understood my question and gave me the answer I needed.
I was impressed, as I often am when outside the U.S., by this man’s skill in being a Polish immigrant to The Netherlands speaking enough Dutch to get him a job at a store and also speaking enough English to help me. This man spoke three languages. Maybe not perfectly or academically, but he still spoke three languages. This wasn’t some university professor who had spent time in another country or a young person privelged enough to attend second language lessons at a young age. This was a stock boy in a grocery store.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself shocked by the second and third language skills of people in countries other than my own. In France a garbage collector was able to give me directions in a nearly perfect English accent. In my Dutch class there are students with native languages that make learning Dutch much more difficult than it is for me (Thai, for example), yet their tongues form the words and when they can’t get their point across they switch almost effortlessly to English. It’s in these moments that I realize my stereotype of multilingualism as a hobby of the elite is completely unfounded.
These moments shame me and inspire me. I am fluent in only one language – English. I attended a few private (and very low budget) Christian schools and graduated from public school where I was required to study Spanish. I also studied Spanish at university, but I can do little more than understand vocabulary words and simple sentences. Conversing is out of the question. I know very few people in the U.S. who are truly bilingual or even fluent in another language. The few people I know in America who are bilingual are so because they were raised in homes where English was not the first language spoken – not because their schools pushed them toward fluency in another tongue.
Research has shown us, time and time again, that the time in our development most ripe for language learning is at a young age, yet very few schools begin foreign language study at the primary level. On a recent trip back to America, I had a chance to grab a drink with a friend I taught with last year and we both lamented our inability to speak a foreign language and the daunting prospect of attempting to achieve fluency as adults. We felt jipped by our educations – like the people making the decisions didn’t think we were important enough to cultivate into global citizens. Unfortunately, part of the problem with foreign language education in the American public school systems is time. Students often have to take five or six classes each year just to graduate, leaving little time for in-depth study of a second language. And many students can graduate without ever having studied a foreign language.
America has put so much pressure on English and math courses as “most important” in the curriculum. Many of my students struggled with communicating clearly in their native English tongue and they were approaching 18 years old, so one might ask why we should even bother getting those students learning another language on top of English. We should do it because there is no better way to understand your native language than through the lens of a foreign one. I have never been so cognizant of English grammar constructions than when I started studying Dutch. I’m an “English teacher,” yet I’m continually learning about my own language as I learn a second one. To understand how the Dutch construct a sentence one has to understand how it differs from how sentences are constructed in your own language.
The lackluster foreign language education in America is breeding unilingual teachers like myself. The teachers who are bilingual (or multilingual) see the marketability of that fact and may reach beyond the borders of America for more lucritive and exciting careers in international education or opt for private schools that will compensate them for the rarity of fluency in a second language. Or they may skip over the prospect of education as a career since pay scales are set in stone and allow little room to compensate new hires for unique skills.
Dutch students are required to study not just their native language and English in school, but French and German. We put limits on the potential of American students by not pushing them to study two or more languages. Being able to speak a second or third language instills confidence in students and opens up new worlds to them, not to mention it helps to mold them into more global-minded individuals by allowing them to delve into cultures other than their own. While I hate the rhetoric about America “losing” to other countries in certain fields and studies, I would ask the leaders that make that argument as a push for standardized testing how they expect the students that score highly on those bubble tests to help America “win” if they can’t communicate in languages other than English?
I feel like I was done a disservice in my education by seeing foreign language study portrayed as an elective and being told “but don’t worry – everyone speaks English.” That may be comforting to the occasional traveler, but if we want our students to be able to go anywhere and do anything, as we so often tell them they can, then we have to put a heavier pressure on administrators and elected officials to appreciate and fund foreign language education.
Now, who wants to help me with my Spanish?
I commented on Mary's post by saying:Hi, Mary!
I am a student at The University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I am a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class and I was assigned to comment on one of your blog posts. I really appreciated this post because I have always thought about this myself. At my High School, we only had to have two credits of a foreign language to graduate, and we had two choices-French or Spanish. I, myself, took French I and II and learned a lot but still only learned the very, very basic concepts. I think if the U.S. put more emphasis on learning second languages and studying other countries and cultures that students can broaden their horizons a bit and will be given more insight on what is out there to accomplish as far as careers, or even travel opportunities, are concerned. Thank you for sharing this post!
One of the first things on my list of things to do after moving to The Netherlands was to get a library membership. If I couldn’t work right away, I wanted to at least take advantage of the time through reading. I ran into a brick wall of sorts when I realized the selection of English language books at the library wasn’t to my taste (I’m sorry, James Patterson). I was also taken aback by the fees, which include an annual fee of around 25 euro and a fee for each item checked out. I wouldn’t mind the fees if the selection were more appealing, but it wasn’t so I walked out the door and started to think of other ways to feed my reading cravings.
Buying books, even used, was out of the question because my partner and I are trying to save money wherever we can. I began looking at e-readers as an option given the amount of books one can save to them, the portability (shipping books from the states is breathtakingly expensive), and the endless selection. For many reasons I won’t detail here, I went with a Kindle from Amazon and have been delighted from the moment I busted it from its packaging.
Sure, it’s great to have an endless selection of books at your fingertips. And with the use of great, open-source software like Calibre, you can get news on your Kindle and convert different e-book formats to fit your device in one click. But as an educator I’m much more interested in the highlighting feature.
As a teacher I always encourged, and often required, my students to engage in active reading. I would ask them to take Post-It notes and, while reading, add them to a passage and include one thing on the note: a reflection, a question, a prediction, etc. This was a great way to check if students had done the reading for homework, but it also forced them to engage with the text in a more meaningful way. And it prepared them for the day’s discussion. As an aside, students that didn’t do the reading couldn’t engage in the discussion and had to spend that time reading the passage and noting while we discussed in a circle. With the advent of web highlighting and annotating tools (Diigo is my preferred choice), we can get students working virtually and reading not just their own notes but the notes of other classmates and people around the world.
The Kindle comes a highlighting and note-taking feature. I wasn’t sure I’d be using it, but along with the built-in dictionary it’s become one of my favorite parts of reading on the device. For example, the first thing I downloaded to the device was a free copy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde from Project Gutenberg. It’s a short and hilarious play (you can read my Goodreads review of it here) and I found myself wanting to highlight certain one-liners to remember and reflect upon later. Enter the highlight feature. You can view all of your highlighted and noted bits at once with the click of a button and the notes contain links back to the location of the passage. Often times in college I would highlight a passage in a textbook, but forget where I even made the note. The fact that Kindle gathers them all in one place is a bonus and the note-taking feature, should you take advantage of it, can help you as a reader add context to the highlighting lest you forget why you highlighted it in the first place (something that happens to me all the time).
While I use the highlighter often, I wasn’t sure when I’d want to add a note until I started reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Even though I’m a vegan and already know a lot about the farming systems of the world, I’m learning a ton through this book and I’m being challenged by it. It’s in these moments that the active reader needs to take action or the moment will pass and the potential for deeper learning will be lost. I’ve highlighted quite a few passages that I’d like to revisit and plan on adding a few notes for context. Ultimately I want to blog and reflect on why I made the choice to become vegan and I think Foer’s personal reflections on his choice of vegetarianism parallel mine in many ways. The e-reader is making this a lot easier.
Oh, and I’m very easily distracted by all the Web has to offer, so the allure of the e-reader as a nearly single-use device was part of the reason I went for it. It’s also cheaper than an iPad and the screen is, for lack of better words, extremely readable.
I commented on Mary's post by saying:Hi, Mary!
I am a student at The University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I am enrolled in an EDM310 class in which we, as future educators, are learning about the benefits of incorporating technology into our classrooms. I think this scenario is a perfect example of how useful technology can be! I plan on teaching at the Elementary level, and have come to find that books, especially children’s books, can become overwhelmingly expensive. I think that an ereader, such as a kindle, could be very beneficial in the classroom. Thanks for sharing this and giving me some ideas.