Education Opinion

Viewpoint: A Linguistic Proposal

By Jerry Jesness — February 01, 2002 7 min read
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By counting a score on a language test in its admissions package, the University of California would give the study of foreign languages the respect it deserves.

British novelist and critic Anthony Burgess once wrote that his compatriots do not trust those who speak more than one language, as they associate this ability with foreigners, waiters, and impresarios. The American attitude toward languages isn’t much different, though we might add menial laborers to the list. That view was typified not long ago by an Amarillo, Texas, judge who ordered a Hispanic woman to speak English to her child so that the girl would not grow up to be a housemaid.

So I was not surprised last year by the widespread negative reaction to a proposal made by Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California. He recommended that scores on the SAT II be weighed more heavily in the state’s university admissions decisions than those on the much more commonly used SAT I. While the SAT I tests vocabulary, reading, and general reasoning ability, the SAT II measures knowledge of English, history, science, math, and foreign languages. So, I ask: What’s wrong with that? Some voices are crying that the switch—which has yet to be voted on by the system’s board of regents—would amount to “stealth affirmative action,” a way to sneak more Hispanics and Asian Americans into California’s universities by giving them credit for command of their native tongues.

In some parts of the world, of course, a person is not considered truly cultured unless he or she has mastered at least one or two foreign languages. Even in the United States, the study of foreign languages was once considered an essential part of a liberal arts education. So it may seem unnecessary to explain the advantages that knowing other languages brings to an educated person. But I’m a schoolteacher, and it’s sometimes my job to explain the obvious. Twice, I’ve been called on to justify the teaching of literature to high school students. In that same spirit, I will attempt to explain the merits of being bi-, tri-, or multilingual.

In this age, when academia is drenched with often-bogus approaches to multiculturalism, those who speak foreign languages hold the key, perhaps the only key, to exploring other cultures. I again state the obvious when I point out that an understanding of various cultures is one of the traditional goals of liberal education. Not everything written in the world is translated into English. Often, that which is translated is what’s deemed appropriate for foreign eyes. And translators often make adjustments that fit the foreign view.

The great Spanish novelist and playwright Miguel de Cervantes wrote, “Reading a translation is like viewing a fine Italian tapestry from behind.” Even if the process is executed skillfully, many nuances are lost. Polyglots, especially those who have done translation and interpreting, understand this. Monolinguals can get a feeling of the nature of translation by reading two or three versions of the same work. The reader will find a number of differences. This will generally not be due to a lack of integrity on the translator’s part, but rather to the difficulty in matching concepts that cannot be precisely expressed in one of the languages.

Americans who communicate only with English-speaking foreigners get a limited glimpse into their cultures. Those who have learned English as a second language generally have, during the process, absorbed some of the culture of the English-speaking world, and this newfound knowledge is reflected in conversation. If a European visitor, for example, chooses to speak to you about Disneyland or rock music rather than Kafka or Proust, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is infatuated with American pop culture. He may simply be seeking common linguistic ground.

Those who speak foreign languages hold the key, perhaps the only key, to exploring other cultures.

Often, English-speaking foreigners avoid topics that are close to their hearts when speaking to monolinguals. They are generally more open when conversing with those who know their native language. And they assume that those same people have an understanding and respect for their culture and will be less likely to judge them from a narrow, foreign point of view.

In my travels, I’ve been amazed at the ignorance of some of the monolingual members of American communities abroad. Aspects of the local culture that are obvious to recent arrivals and even native children remain a mystery to 20-year residents who speak only English. Languages indeed open minds.

Yet many Americans mistakenly believe that people can absorb languages simply by being around them. This view is reinforced by both supporters of immersion, who feel that mere contact with a new language will lead to its mastery, and proponents of bilingual education, who hold that one will magically “transition” into a second language by dabbling in it while maintaining academic instruction in the native tongue. The truth is that, like anything worthwhile, command of a second language requires real effort and sometimes a bit of pain—nothing unbearable, mind you, but a lot of hard work. While children tend to learn languages with less effort than older folk, even young language-learners have their problems.

Often, bilingual children find themselves in a linguistic twilight zone, knowing some vocabulary and structures from one language and some from another. While these kids may have a larger vocabulary than their monolingual peers if we include the words they know in both languages, they sometimes have a smaller vocabulary in each language. It is not uncommon for a bilingual 5-year-old, for example, to identify the colors as “rojo,” “blanco,” “yellow,” “azul,” and “gray.”

As a special education instructor working with bilingual students, I deal with many children who have tested positive for learning disabilities. When appropriate, I explain the “twilight zone” concept to parents and assure them that, with lots of exposure to oral vocabulary, wide reading, and dictionary use, their kids will get through this difficult stage. I also offer hope that there will be a payoff several years down the line when their kids bring a second language to their academic work.

Studies indicate that, if it’s passed, a new SAT II requirement would increase the number of Hispanics admitted to the University of California system, principally because of the effect of inclusion of scores on the Spanish test. Does this mean that Hispanics will become, like their Asian counterparts, a minority group over-represented in academia? Not likely. A great many public schools serving Hispanics, especially those who are dominant in Spanish, are not particularly good and probably will not become so for years.

But unless some federal judge eventually shoots down the California SAT II test requirement, schools that serve non-Hispanics will have no choice but to respond by offering high-quality language programs. This is not an impossible dream.

Like anything worthwhile, command of a second language requires real effort and sometimes a bit of pain.

A number of problems dog the foreign language programs in our schools. Few American schools require students to study foreign languages. Some offer only two years of study, even for students in the college-preparatory track. Many teachers have only rudimentary command of the languages they teach. Worst of all, few American schools truly expect their students to learn the languages they study. In too many schools, it is enough for students to conjugate a few verbs, learn a few common nouns, draw a few pictures, and maybe celebrate a culture by singing simple songs and eating ethnic food on national holidays.

If our schools allowed elementary students opportunities to dabble in foreign languages and offered language classes each year in middle and high school, if they had qualified teachers who could speak the languages well, and if they demanded that students take the subject seriously, we could produce students who not only score respectably on SAT II tests, but who also graduate able to function adequately in the language studied.

Although I hold a master’s degree in Spanish literature and am certified to teach secondary level Spanish, I have chosen to teach students who are learning English as a second language. Whatever problems exist in bilingual and ESL programs, at least students there expect and are expected to eventually master English. I have been reluctant to move into a situation where I would be teaching students who consider my Spanish class merely a place to get their tickets punched as part of the college-admissions process.

By counting a score on a language test in its admissions package, the University of California would be making a major step toward giving the study of foreign languages the respect it deserves.

Jerry Jesness is a special education teacher who works with bilingual children in public schools. He lives in Harlingen, Texas.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2002 edition of Teacher Magazine as Viewpoint: A Linguistic Proposal


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