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nytraveler Sep 2nd, 2006 06:59 AM

Why is it so hard for Americans to learn another language when most europeans do?
All right - so it's only tangentially related to travel. But there's a very interesting article in today's NY Times on the dismal state of college education in the US. They focus on the number of students admitted to junior colleges - and in some states to 4 year state universities - who require remedial courses before they can do college work - not only in foreign languages, but in math, reading, science, etc.

The sad part is that many of the students graduated from high schools feeling that they were ready for college work - only to find they were years behind where they should be. (One young man really thought being able to balance a check book made you ready for college math - even though he couldn't do algebra or trig.)

Is it just that in europe the school day is longer and there is less vacation time? Or that courses are more demanding all the way through school - ie learning basic english by the age of 12 in many places? Or that many children in the US are simply never going to be capable of the demands of higher education - and should be put on a different (non-academic) track - without any stigma being involved?

If we're going to expect most of our children to go to college we need to teach them much more - and demand much more of them - from first grade on. You can;t do what a couple of states have tried (test at the end of 11th grade and try to have the kids do all the catching up/remedial work in one year.)

Now, I know part of the problem is that in europe the national government supports education and has universal mandates - while we leave it to the states which makes education very uneven across the counry - not only state by state but often district by district.

But I don;t really believe our children are stupider. Why can;t we do a better job of teaching them? Learning a foreign language is not difficult - and the earlier you start the better. Why can't our 12 year-olds speak something besides english? (Never mind the adults.)

realshalott Sep 2nd, 2006 07:03 AM

it's an interesting topic, but for an in-depth discussion of public education in the US, specifically language education, and the dominance of English across the globe, you won't necessarily find that all the experts in those fields are posting on Fodors.

ira Sep 2nd, 2006 07:09 AM

>Why is it so hard for Americans to learn another language when most europeans do?<

It's not. It's just that in the US, the ability to speak a language other than English is not as important as it is for someone in, say, Denmark to learn a second language.


suze Sep 2nd, 2006 07:30 AM

I think it has to do with language being taught early on in Europe and being a requirment in schools. Neither of which happens in the U.S. in most places.

Even in the trades, there are tests and certificates. My Swiss friend asked in amazement, "how do you know the plumber will know how to fix your toilet when there are no certifications?" the two Americans in the group just laughed and said "you don't". He couldn't get over it.

SeaUrchin Sep 2nd, 2006 07:39 AM

In Los Angeles it is hard to find someone who speaks English and if they do it is usually their second language.

Pegontheroad Sep 2nd, 2006 07:40 AM

I studied Spanish in college, and it was ten years before I ever had an opportunity to speak a word of it. Even today, I have to travel a thousand miles through my own country in order to speak Spanish, unless I go to a Mexican restaurant, because there are few Spanish speakers where I live.

That said, I diligently attend my Spanish classes at the senior center, even knowing that unless I go to Mexico or to Spain, I won't have an opportunity to use it.

I have also learned German--really as a hobby--but I've never become as fluent as I'd like to be because I can only practice it when I'm willing and able to spend $3000 attending a foreign language school in the U.S. or in Germany.

As to whether our schools don't prepare students, I think that's true, but there are societal reasons for that deficiency, which I won't attempt to explore. Also we attempt to keep students in an academic setting until they are approximately 18. In other countries (Germany is the one I know best) students stay in school until they are about 16 and then go to either gymnasium, where they prepare for university, or they go into vocational training.

That makes much more sense to me. However, it seems to me that our system allows for late bloomers and second chances better than the European systems. Once a student does mature enough to realize what he needs to do, there are generally good opportunities to attend college classes.

Adrian45 Sep 2nd, 2006 07:41 AM

I think that the most european learn English as a second language, and not another one.
In the opinion of many, the English is an "international" language, and you need it in order to make business, to have access to the last info, etc. So, most of us consider that it is a must to learn English.
The people in USA and England know about this opinion, and as they already know English...why to make an effort if it is not needed?

kybourbon Sep 2nd, 2006 07:52 AM

My daughter lived with a family in Spain last year for 5 months. All had the required English classes throughout their school years. None of them could speak any English. Education varies, even in Europe.

I think for years (at least where I live) teachers were required to build self-esteem in students and students were never alowed to be retained. I'm not so sure that's the case in other countries.

Many colleges are the equivalent of high school. Yet their students graduate with a college degree.

There should be an exit test for elementary, 11th grade is too late.

xyz123 Sep 2nd, 2006 07:52 AM

You know I was in London last week and read the same exact complains about English education...

The fact is like it or not English is the closest thing to a universal language in the world today...if you speak English you really have no great universal need for another language...of course if you're going to love in Portugal, then you will have to learn Portuguese...if you live in the United States you can travel 3,000 miles from east to west, 1800 miles from north to south and not need another travel to most of Canada you don't need another language, you travel to the Uk, Australia, New Zealand you don't need another language...Europeans know if they want to get a job in a multi lingjual position, one of the languages they will need is English..I'm sorry, and perhaps this is very parochial, I don't feel the need whatsoever to learn another language.

As far as this myth how far behind the American education is...remember in the United States it is assumed everybody can go to college and most of our secondary education as a matter of fact almost all of our secondary education is to prepare students for university...not so in most of the rest of the world...only the educationally elite study a secondary probgram leading to university...many when they reach the age of 13 or 14 are sent off to learn a trade.

Learning a second or third language is not necessarily synonymous with a superior education

Clifton Sep 2nd, 2006 07:54 AM

I agree with ira - I don't feel that an issue of education. People learn what they need to learn out of necessity. I was learning a little bit about why all the little kids in Cambodia are able to walk up to foreigners and ask in perfect English (with very cute French accents, by the way) if the visitor would like to buy something. I was told by a couple of people that English language lessons in Cambodia were very expensive and that most children can't afford it. But out of necessity, in order to live, they learn English anywhere they can... usually from each other and from the foriegners they approach. Many of their parents don't speak it because tourism wasn't there a generation ago. But many of the parents speak French, as they were occupied during that period. Other countries (or regions of larger countries) where there is no overwhelming influx of other languages or overland availibility to neighboring languages are not that much different than the US. I haven't noticed that Australians, for instance, have an appreciable difference in the numbers having a second language.

I would venture to say that the majority of people in any given country don't routinely trans-continentally. We who do are not representative of the world's population as a whole. But for the price of a tank of gas or two, a family in Denmark can enjoy a trip to the beaches of Italy, crossing at least two language zones as they go. The same distance in the US will get you to Florida, crossing none. No necessity to try to communicate in anything but English. Well, maybe Spanish if you really wanted to, but you wouldn't have to. Driving into Mexico is still something that isn't done by a large volume of Americans. Even people who go frequently recommend flying, as the crossing with a vehicle is full of red tape.

Coming back to the education thought - I grew up in one of those midwestern families that didn't/couldn't travel by air. I took several Spanish semesters in school. As I prepare for a trip this coming week to central Mexico, I am amazed still by how little Spanish I retained. I just wasn't exposed to it much after school. What you don't use, you lose.

Finally, I do think there has always been a drive in the US for assimilation - and not just around a common language. The melting pot thing. My grandparents all spoke German exclusively, even though they, and even some of their own parents, were born in the US. They lived in an isolated region of farming communities (mostly vineyards) in Missouri. Then the gov't sent in teachers to educate the area and the first thing they taught my parent's generation was English. Even to the point of instructing my Mom that she wasn't pronuncing their last name correctly - W's that sounded like V, sounding out the second vowel, not having the "E" silent at the end, etc. And to this day, that surname is still being pronunced as the teachers declared it should be. My parents taught my grandparents English and by the time I was old enough to be curious about my history, not a single one of them were willing to teach us grandkids German. "Ach, ya... why do you want to learn that? We speak English now". And so the knowledge of German died with that generation. My parents generation have all forgotten it and mine never got to learn it except in school, where it's use is, quite literally, purely academic.

Although, I can still sort of follow a conversation, as they'd still try to switch to German when they didn't want the kids to know what they were saying. Of course, out of necessity (the central theme to this morning's ramble), we'd have to be nosy and try to figure it out. I still can't speak it though, because we never got to get in on the conversations.

Viajero2 Sep 2nd, 2006 07:54 AM

If the most important business, political, and social policies in the world were dictated by Ukrania in the Ukranian language, I guarantee you Americans would be speaking Ukranian like they were born there. Simple as that. Communication responds to necessity and survival. If my neighbors spoke different languages and I needed to trade with them to survive, I would speak their languages. No doubt. It is not a matter of nationality, that is coincidential; it is a matter of NECESSITY.

As far as the other skills, i.e. math, history, etc... the parents are to blame. Why are they not DEMANDING more and better from their school systems AND from their kids?

nytraveler Sep 2nd, 2006 07:58 AM

Well -

I would agree with the idea that most Americans don;t learn another language since they don;t have to - they never plan on leaving the country - or assume wherever they go people will know english (which is usually true) - if that were the only deficiency.

But I don;t really think that's the reason. If it were - so many wouldn;t also be unable to learn to read/write English, or do math or science on an age-appropriate level.

Perhaps the idea of a second - vocational - educational track in which students were trained - and certified - in other skills makes sense - rather than pushing everyone to academics - when so many are unable or unwilling to learn even the basics.

After all - isn't a highly qualified plumber or car mechanic of much greater value to society - and won;t they earn a much better living - than "college graduates" who can't really qualify for the jobs requiring such an education.

soleil17 Sep 2nd, 2006 08:00 AM

How about starting with the geography? The United States is vast. Where's the incentive for someone living and working in middle America to learn a foreign language if it already takes him or her a long time to even get to the border of the U.S.

I can drive to two other countries within 5 hours of where I live in Europe. Thus, I speak those other two languages. I have an incentive to do so.

And don't even get me started on the number of different languages I can reach within a 2 hour flight...

The size and unity of the U.S. precludes some of the need.

(Don't get me wrong - I think it's important to learn other languages)

And yes, kybourbon is correct -- it would be an error to generalize that all EU education is superior to the U.S. In fact, I whole heartedly disagree. The entire approach to education is simply different. Many EU educational programs focus on memorization of facts and the "correct" way to do things. The U.S. emphasizes creativity - and I believe that is where the American entrepreneurial spirit comes from -- and that is nothing to be looked down on -- it is the worlds largest economy for a reason.

vcl Sep 2nd, 2006 08:02 AM

If the residents of each state in the U.S. spoke their own languages -- okay, NewYorkese does differ somewhat from Native Kentucky, but not much -- most of us would be able to speak the languages of neighboring states, especially if we lived near the borders. Or we would learn a more universal second language which would become the language of commerce and diplomacy.
Once upon a time, the universal second language for Western cultures was French.
In our day, the universal language is English. As native speakers, we have a head start. But this also means that we are perhaps less skilled at acquiring a second language and are certainly less motivated to become fluent.
Our grandchildren are bilingual; their other grandparents speak only minimal English. You want a cookie, you better be able to ask for it nicely. Our daughter also learned to speak the language of her in-laws, as a matter of love, courtesy and self-preservation. She also wanted to know what his sisters were saying about her.

Anya Sep 2nd, 2006 08:10 AM

As far as language goes there are many more oppotunities for Europeans to practice a foreign language plus TV programs in English help a lot too. You forget a lot if you don't use it.

As far as education in general, I studied in Ukraine through 6 grades, and then I came here I was 2-3 years ahead. We did NOT have more hours in school. I think the quality of education was definitely better, in US a lot of schooltime in seems to be babysitting or busywork. And things like social promotion don't help.

MaureenB Sep 2nd, 2006 08:12 AM

Did you see the John Stossel 20/20 report last night? It was called Stupid in America (or something like that). I'm not a fan of John Stossel's abrasive attitude, but the report made some good points.
One of which was that money doesn't solve the problem-- creativity and competition do. He cited charter schools as being rather successful in several cities. And discussed the idea of school vouchers also working well where they have been allowed (very volatile subject, I know). And a school district in Kansas City which dumped millions into its school buildings, but still failed with educating the students. Very interesting. Also very sobering.
Our kids went to private schools, which we know is a privilege, but we decided early on to spend money on education over many other things. As a result, our oldest found she was extremely ready for college, having worked so hard in her private high school. Our son is a senior in a private, Jesuit high school now. He said his friends in the large public school in our neighborhood can get out as early as 11:00 a.m. some school days, because they have finished their requirements, so they just leave school. No options for extra classes, I guess. It's pitiful.
Not a topic for a trave forum, but it is an important subject overall.

Carrybean Sep 2nd, 2006 08:13 AM

As has been mentioned, there is much less an opportunity to use a foreign language plus Latin is being taught so infrequently unlike when I went to school.

Sorry to say, there has been a vast dumbing down in schools compared to when I was in grade school & high school. College is another matter. JMHO

kybourbon Sep 2nd, 2006 08:24 AM

Stupid in America was a rerun from the winter. The report released on charter schools (by the GAO I think) this past week had those students actually scoring lower than public school students.

In my daughter's high school, there were 3 levels of Algebra II (a graduation requirement). The top two levels required a graphing calculator, while the lowest level didn't. The kids in the low class really didn't learn anything the other classes did, but they all had Algebra II on their HS transcript as if they took the same class.

kybourbon Sep 2nd, 2006 08:29 AM

Charter school report link

Ann41 Sep 2nd, 2006 08:36 AM

It's interesting how everyone always bashes the primary and secondary education system in the US, and yet eight of the top 10 universities in the world are in the US, fed by our secondary schools. Hmm.

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