Teaching Opinion

Good Luck Learning a Foreign Language in American Schools

By Starr Sackstein — June 04, 2017 6 min read
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Guest post by Douglas W. Green, EdD

There is little evidence that many students achieve much fluency in high school." Jay Mathews Washington Post

As a freshman in high school I took French I and after earning a 75, I trudged on to French II. The French II teacher spoke French most of the time and I didn’t understand much. I decided to get a fresh start with German I. Somehow I slogged through two years of a language that was at least easier to spell, but featured three definite articles rather than two.

In college I majored in Chemistry, which required a year of German. I earned a pair of C’s and was thrilled to see it in the rear view mirror. The next time I had to deal with a foreign language was during my Army basic combat training. As part of initial processing we took a foreign language aptitude test. To my surprise, my grade indicated that I had a high aptitude for learning a foreign language, something my high school teachers missed.

In 1980 I took my mother to visit her relatives in Sweden. To prepare for the trip, my wife and I got some Berlitz tapes and listened as often as possible. This allowed us to learn the basics so we could try to communicate with my mother’s older relatives who didn’t speak English.

We found that communicating at the dinner table was a tiring experience, but by pointing and asking simple questions like what to you call that and how much does that cost, we got by. In the process, it wasn’t long before I was able to put sentences together that were understood, and the compliments followed.

How was it that my efforts in French and German class in high school were futile while my independent efforts to learn Swedish were successful? My first guesses were that in Sweden I was immersed, there was a rich context for all language use, and I was very motivated. All things missing at my high school.

Enter the Refugees

As principal of Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Binghamton, NY, 25 percent of my students were refugees who arrived knowing little English. I got to see kids come in with no English and leave being fairly fluent. It was also obvious to me that the younger students learned faster than their older siblings. Research supports this. (I should note that the refugees were my best students when it came to effort and behavior.)

According to Jay Mathews, the education columnist for the Washington Post, “there is little evidence that many students achieve much fluency in high school.” The problem has something to do with the artificial way languages are presented in schools. Typically, students spend a period of 40 minutes each day dealing with the second language while all other classes are English only. My teachers also assumed that I had mastered English grammar, which I hadn’t.

My refugees were immersed in sea of English all day. This explains part of why they learned so fast. It also explains my success with Swedish. Also, television shows in Sweden were either in Swedish or in English with Swedish subtitles. I found both types to be very powerful learning experiences.

Why is it so Difficult for English Speakers?

English speakers often bemoan the fact that they are bad at learning other languages. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s the rare school that starts students on a second language prior to the age of 12. Research indicates that with puberty comes increased difficulty in learning languages. In other words, schools in the U.S. wait until it’s too late for kids to have an easier time learning a second language.

In Sweden students start English in the 3rd grade. Students in foreign countries may have parents who speak English. I’ve seen this up close visiting homes in Quebec, France, and Sweden. There are English speakers all over the world, which makes it easier for English speakers to travel without making an effort to learn the local language. Natives also often want to practice their English on you.

Consider the world’s media. In many other countries, pop stars sing in English and the world’s most popular movies are originally voiced in English. As you travel the world, you will be exposed to a lot of English media.

I’m convinced, however, that the most important issue is motivation. In high school and college, I had no motivation for learning another language. The only motivation for most students in the US is getting good grades or just getting by. When it was time to visit my Swedish speaking relatives, however, I was motivated. Research supports the importance of motivation when it comes to learning anything.

So What Should We Do?

I doubt many schools in the U.S. will move language instruction to elementary schools, and I’m not sure they should. The cost of bringing in language specialists would not produce the desired results since the students would just get a brief exposure.

It is probably up to parents to make real fluency happen. If parents know another language, they should use it around the house as often as possible. If they have some motivation to learn another language themselves, they should include their children in the process. Also look for opportunities to go to places where only the other language is allowed.

A semester abroad is often an opportunity for older students. If a student is placed in a home where the family wants to practice their English, however, they might not learn much. Look for a placement in a small town where English is not as common and at least the parents don’t speak English. The attitude of the student is probably the most important variable.

When my three-year-old daughter visited my Swedish cousins, she spent time with my cousin’s three older children. They liked playing with her as it allowed them to practice their English. Look for such opportunities for your kids. Also look for children’s media in the target language. To this day, I like to watch children’s programs in French and Swedish.

For many poor parents, English is a second language. Let them know that they should help their kids learn their native language. Tell them the effort is worth it as learning another language has been shown to be good for one’s brain. Wealthy parents often hire child care workers whose first language is not English. If you are in this demographic, tell the caregiver to teach your child their first language.

Going from one subject for 40 minutes to another to another doesn’t seem to be the best way to learn anything. This approach is worse for foreign languages. Perhaps online self-paced courses with lots of media could do a better job. It may not address the motivation issue, but it could provide a richer context. Since we know that the traditional approach isn’t working, it’s time to at least try something else. Also, be sure to order a few cases of motivation.

Resources from the article:

Alban, Deane. The Brain Benefits of Learning a Second Language, Be Brain Fit. Downloaded May 25, 2017, //bit.ly/2qTxVPy

Edmonds, Molly. What’s the best age to learn a new language? How Stuff Works Culture, Downloaded May 25, 2017, //bit.ly/2qTsaSd.

Learning a Second Language Is Easier for Children, But Why? The course website and blog for the Fall 2014 semester of Penn State’s SC200 course, //bit.ly/2qTsy2Z.

Mathews, Jay. Why waste time on a foreign language?, Washington Post, April 22, 2014, //wapo.st/2qToXSw

McWhorter, John. The Story of Human Language, 2004, The Teaching Company, Audible original recording.

Oroujlou, Nasser. Motivation, attitude, and language learning, Science Direct, Volume 29, 2011, Pages 994-1000, //bit.ly/2qT7QjG.

Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science. He has held administrative positions of K-12 science chair, district director of computer services, director of instruction, and elementary principal. He teaches leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification, and has authored hundreds of articles in computer magazines and educational journals. He retired in 2006 to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig's disease. After her death in March of 2009, he started his blog to provide free resources and book summaries for busy educators and parents. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDougGreen.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.