“No Coherent Strategy” for Teaching Foreign Languages
The New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog asks whether Chinese instruction will take hold in American schools or whether interest in the language is just a passing fad. A few of the respondents dismiss the apparent upswing in the popularity of learning Chinese. They describe American culture as indifferent to foreign languages, and blame this on a lack of state directives. For example (emphasis mine):
I believe the main reason for this disparity is that foreign languages are treated by our public education system as less important than math, science and English. In contrast, E.U. governments expect their citizens to become fluent in at least two languages plus their native tongue.
Another panelist laments the fact that “unlike Europe, the U.S. has no coherent strategy for making our society bilingual.”
I suspect European countries’ policies are a reflection of their citizens’ interest in languages, rather than the cause. Europeans have ample reason to study languages; they all live within a short distance of other countries where different languages are spoken. As Norman Matloff notes in his response to the Room for Debate question, Americans who live close to the border with Mexico show more enthusiasm for learning Spanish than do their fellow citizens to the north.
Could it be that although proximity to foreign language speakers can spark people’s interest, policies are what really make them use other languages? If that’s the case, I’d be hard pressed to explain what happened in Ontario, Canada, where a ceremony was conducted in English a few weeks ago. That was despite French’s status as an official language of Canada, and despite the French-language public school boards and community colleges that are established throughout the province. When a language isn’t useful to people, policymakers who promote it are wasting their time.
The United States shouldn’t order everyone to learn languages, but the education system should give opportunities to become bilingual to people who are interested. Magnet schools and charter schools are good environments for language specialization, as are the optional language-immersion programs offered by some traditional districts. (Examples in Missouri are Academie Lafayette, the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools, and the Kansas City School District’s Foreign Language Academy.) Parents who want their children to have a lot of foreign language exposure can enroll them in these schools.
If Chinese language education is to continue growing, more people must be free to choose schools that teach it. Policymakers who are worried about American students learning English only ought to try to make it easier to open new language-immersion choice schools.