Curriculum Commentary

Not Just for Foreigners Anymore

By Jerry Jesness — November 28, 2001 7 min read
It's time to give language study the respect it deserves.

The British novelist and critic Anthony Burgess once wrote that his compatriots do not trust those who speak more than one language, as they associate language ability with foreigners, waiters, and impresarios. The American attitude toward languages is little different, although we might add menial laborers to the list. That attitude 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 at the national reaction to a proposal by the University of California’s president that scores on the SAT II be weighed more heavily in admissions decisions than those on the SAT I. While the SAT I is a test of vocabulary, reading, and general reasoning ability, the SAT II measures knowledge of English, history, science, math, and foreign languages. So what’s wrong with that? Some voices are crying that this is “stealth affirmative action,” a way to sneak more Hispanics and Asian- Americans into the university 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 the command of at least one or two foreign languages. Even here in the United States, the learning of foreign languages was once considered an essential part of a liberal arts education. So it may seem unnecessary to explain the advantages a command of foreign languages brings to an educated person. But I am a schoolteacher, and it is 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 multiculturalism, those who speak foreign languages hold the key, perhaps the only true key, to understanding other cultures. Again, I state the obvious when I remind readers that an understanding of a variety of 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 that which is deemed appropriate for foreign eyes. And often the translator adjusts the language of the translation to fit a foreign view. Sometimes, readers need languages to get, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”

The great Spanish novelist and playwright Miguel Cervantes wrote, “Reading a translation is like viewing a fine Italian tapestry from behind.” Even if a translation is done well, 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 different translations of the same work. The reader will find a number of differences. This will generally not be due to 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.

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

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

Often, people avoid topics that are close to their hearts when speaking to monolingual foreigners. Such people are generally more open when speaking with those who know their native language. People generally assume that those who speak their language 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 was amazed at the ignorance of some of the monolingual members of American communities abroad. Aspects of the local culture that were obvious to recent arrivals and even some children who spoke the local languages remained a mystery to 20-year residents who spoke only English. Languages indeed open minds.

Yet many Americans have the misconception that people can painlessly absorb languages simply by being around them. This misconception 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, mastery of a second language requires real effort and sometimes a bit of pain. Nothing unbearable, mind you, but real work and some unpleasantness. While young children tend to learn languages with less effort than older folk, even young language-learners have their problems.

Often, young bilingual children find themselves in a linguistic twilight zone, knowing some vocabulary and structures from one language, some in another, and some in both. Such children may have a larger total vocabulary than their monolingual peers, if we include the words they know in both languages together, yet 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 teacher working with bilingual children, I deal with a number of students who have been referred for testing for learning disabilities. When appropriate, I explain the “linguistic twilight zone” concept to parents and assure them that with lots of contact with oral vocabulary, wide reading, and dictionary use, their children will get through this difficult stage. I also offer hope that there will be a positive payback several years down the line, when their children bring a second language to their academic studies.

In too many schools, it is enough for students of languages to conjugate a few verbs, learn a few common nouns, draw a few pictures.

Studies indicate that the 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 soon become, like Asians, a minority group overrepresented in academia? Not likely. The public schools serving Hispanics, especially those who are likely to come to school dominant in Spanish, are not particularly good and probably will not become so for years.

But unless some federal judge 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.

A number of problems plague the foreign-language programs in our schools. Few American schools require students to study foreign languages. Some offer only two years of language, even for students in the college-preparatory track. Many of our language 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 of languages to conjugate a few verbs, learn a few common nouns, draw a few pictures, and maybe celebrate culture by singing some simple songs and eating ethnic food on national holidays.

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

Unless some judge shoots down the Californial SAT II requirement, some schools may soon have no choice but to offer high-quality language programs. This is not an impossible dream.

Although I hold a Master of Arts 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 English-as-a-second-language 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 considered 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 will be making a major step toward giving language study the respect it deserves.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Not Just for Foreigners Anymore


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