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

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

Sep 2nd, 2006, 08:36 AM
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Please tell me what language I should learn and how much I will use it.

In the past 40 years...

I took Spanish in High School and College. I have travelled 2 weeks in Spain.

I took Japanese for 3 semesters in graduate School. I travelled 2 weeks in Japan.

I took 1 year of German in Community College. I have travelled 9 weeks in Germany.

I never studied French. I have travelled 4 weeks in France.

My wife has studied Portugese and Italian and gone to neither of these two countries. She has used her Spanish, French and German.

My son took Spanish and French in High School and is taking Italian in Community College. He has never travelled to any of these countries.

However, anyone learning English in Western Europe is going to have plenty of opportunity to use it without leaving their counntry.
bigtyke is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 08:41 AM
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Charter, Public, Private...I really don't think it matters. What does matter is to have the schools staffed with people that care, people who are motivated and can motivate others. I had teachers that put me to sleep and others that I would walk through fire to get to their classes. It's hard to explain.

As far as the foreign language goes, I think we need to start in kindergarten. That way it would not so easily be forgotten. We, in this country, really have no opportunity to speak another language..there are of course SOME exceptions. I took five years of French and never spoke a word of French to s singel soul until a Paris trip in 2002. English is the international language of commerce, all the control towers in all countries are supposed to speak english to all pilots from all countries. I have on two occasions in Europe overheard two people from two different countries that could not speak each others language, communicate in English because that was the common language they both understood. It worked for me so I could listen in on their conversation..subtely of course.

It seems the older you are the more difficult it is to learn a language so back to my point..we need to start out in the very first years of school.
crefloors is online now  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 08:43 AM
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>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.<

Along those lines, the distance from Dublin to Moscow is about the same as from LA to St. Louis.

For the former journey, you will hear at least six different labguages, for the latter only one (mostly).

ira is online now  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 08:45 AM
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Okay- I feel the need to pipe up now, as a FL teacher.

Yes, I agree- the STEREOTYPE is that most Europeans have learned some English in school at some point in time. How much every person retains depends greatly on the person, how they were taught, and how often they use the language.

It is also a STEREOTYPE that Americans can't be bothered to learn other languages, which is partially true and partially unfair. I think that if my whole family had grown up farming in Omaha and I had no prospect of travel, I would find fault with FL education as well. This is not the case for me- but I did have to learn subjects that I do not use in my daily life, as well. It is a part of being a well rounded person.

And if that kid in Omaha connects with the Spanish culture, and finds that the language comes easily to him, and takes a real interest in travel- shouldn't he do it? Even though his family never has?

Understanding a second (3rd, 4th) language is really about taking an interest in a culture that is not your own. I think a lot of the world's issues could be resolved if people cared about other cultures, and not just the fact that "we are American, America is the best". That thought is scary to me, and that type of nationalism is what we see as crazy outside of our borders.

For me, learning Russian was such a part of my development- I cannot imagine if I had not been given this option in school. And through knowing the language, I was able to make friends and understand both types of the Russian culture- what we refer to as the culture with a "C" and culture with a "c".

I am amazed that so many people find it okay to expect English everywhere- but then again, that is a piece of that "we're the best" nationalism that I find so terrifying.

As far as the difficulty of learning language, it is all a part of the age at which you begin. Most US schools are significantly behind other places in the world, partly due to the fact that we are somewhat isolated from other countries, so the need from a young age to speak multiple languages is not as apparent.

This is a HUGE flaw in our educational system, as the brain changes throughout puberty and makes full acquisition of a second language harder, if not impossible for some.

From my professional experience, students with early exposure to 2 or more languages find it much easier to acquire new languages.

Start them younger!
"To have another language is to possess a second soul" -Charlemagne

"Those who know nothing of foreign languages, know nothing of their own" -Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

"If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world" -Ludwig Wittgenstein
katya_NY is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 09:32 AM
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Hi Katya,

Your quotes are all from furriners what din't speak no English.

I agree with you. However, the question was why folks in the US are less likely to speak a second language than folks in Europe, and the reason is that they don't **need** to.

>I am amazed that so many people find it okay to expect English everywhere- ...<

It's not whether it's a good idea or not, it's just that there is a high probability of the casual tourist finding someone who speaks English almost everywhere.

ira is online now  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 09:38 AM
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Everyone everywhere has the same aptitude for learning languages, and all languages are roughly equally difficult to learn. The main differences are in motivation and quality of education.

In countries where learning another language is a necessary prerequisite to economic survival, such as the Netherlands, the quality of education tends to be high, and people are strongly motivated to learn key languages. As a result, most people speak one or more foreign languages well.

In countries with no economic incentive to learn foreign languages, education tends to be poor or sparse, and few people are motivated to learn languages, since the only real motivation is academic curiosity. The United States is in this category, and so Americans tend not to speak foreign languages, and certainly not fluently.

Societies that have long been affluent tend to become lazy and complacent, too, and one of the first casualties of these attitudes is the public education system. The U.S. is also in this category, and so the quality of education is poor, because people have forgotten how important a good education is to keeping the society affluent over the long term.
AnthonyGA is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 09:59 AM
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I challenge your statement that the quality of education especially public education in the United States is poor...that is a blatant misconception. There is a big big difference between American education and that of other countries in how our educations resources are used...our top is as good if not better than the rest of the world...however in America, as I said before, education preparatory to university study is universal...nobody is barred from a university prep course at age 13 as is so in many many many other countries in the world nor are there examinations to enter a university prep course...in America, rightly or wrongly, it is assumed that anybody can go to university and so resources are spread over a wider universe.

Why do many many people come to America to study at Harvard, MIT, and other topp notch American universities if American education is so poor? Why do medical students all over the world want to do residencies in American hospitals?

I am afraid that people who put down American education on the whole simply don't have a clue as to what they're talking about and this is just as true of public education as it is of charter schools, private schools, religeous schools or whatever the difference being the public schools are required to take everybody, can't be as slective as private or charter schools and are prohibited by law from throwing out troublemakers...but still that doesn't mean students in public schools always get an inferior education to the rest of the world

As I said I was in London last week and all the papers were screaming about were the large number of students who had not achieved success on the national exams being given and the dumbing down of the standards.
xyz123 is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:00 AM
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WE are "dumbing down" our education to meet certain criteria and to be sure that we make people feel "good" about themselves, whether it's true or not. My neice studied in Denmark last year. She was getting straight A's at Sonoma State and struggled really hard to make B's in Copenhagen. The Danish kids are allowed a lot of freedom in the very early years and then by third grade they have to buckle down. They start learning English then and take it all through school and also at some point have to pick an additional language. My neice said that was usually German or Russian, with a smattering of others thrown in. I could not believe the number of people in Copenhagen and Stockholm that spoke perfect "Amercian" English..a few British. I was just amazed.
crefloors is online now  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:08 AM
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About a third of Americans are functionally illiterate. That's pretty strong evidence that the quality of education is low. A great deal of other evidence could be cited. It's not surprising that people who cannot even read and write their native language would be unable to use any other language.
AnthonyGA is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:25 AM
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Agree with some of the above posters--there's no need for the vast majority of Americans to learn a second language. They'd never use it for anything of importance. Not the same as in Europe with much smaller countries jammed together that must deal with one another on a daily basis.

In fact, I think it would be a waste of valuable time and money to routinely spend a great deal of effort teaching all American students another language. The vast majority would never use it and would soon forget just about everything they "learned" in school. Plus, how do you motivate the majority of students to do a good job at the hard work of learning another language when they know they'll probably never use it, except maybe on a two-week vacation sometime in the future?

Note that a lot of students do learn to speak Spanish along the Mexico/USA border--they perceive a potential need there.
RufusTFirefly is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:30 AM
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" ... so many people find it okay to expect English everywhere ...."

Expect in the sense of "necessary or proper" or of "likely" to occur? (I looked up "expect" to see if my assumption of two meanings was actually correct.) I expect people to speak English in the sense of likely and have found that to be a pretty accurate assumption in Europe. Particularly where said Europeans deal with tourists. It was less true on my first trip 35 years ago and it is less true of people over about age 50. But just as taking German in college was considered necessary for physical science and engineering majors in the '30s, for example, English seems to be necessary in most disciplines today. In countries where very few people speak the native language, Greece and the Netherlands to name two, English is the primary language with nearly any foreigner.

A couple of years ago we met a honeymooning couple on Santorini. He was Spanish, she was German, they met in Austria, and got married in Switzerland, where they now live. She didn't speak much Spanish, he didn't speak much German. Guess what language they conversed with each other in?

A jeep tour operator in Sydney told me 10 years ago that that Aussies in the tourist business were all trying to learn Japanese. We probably won't have to worry about learning an Oriental language becoming essential in our lifetimes. (And I'm relieved - I certainly didn't have much luck learning a smattering of Arabic 7 yrs. ago from Berlitz tapes. Japanese or Chinese would surely be even harder.) But I suspect the day will come that the language of the world might be Chinese, Indian, or some language other than English.
polly229 is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:32 AM
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Once again, this is not something unique to the United States...many of the British papers I read last week were lamenting how terrible foreign language education is in the UK and the UK is only 25 miles across the Channel from France....English, at least today, is by far the most important and universal language in the world today...maybe in 50 years it will be Chinese but right now it is English and if you know English, there is really not a great deal of importance of learning another language routinely...the same goes for Australia, New Zealand and look at the resentment expressed by many Western Canadians in being forced to learn French because it is officially a bi-lingual country.
xyz123 is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:40 AM
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I think it will be a long time before Chinese is a serious candidate as "the" international language--not a chance until they get a phonetic alphabet.
RufusTFirefly is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:52 AM
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>About a third of Americans are functionally illiterate. <

The 2000 Census reported that about 18% of US residents speak a language other than English at home.

About 13% of US residents report that they do not speak English well.

There are about 11,000,000 illegal immigrants (about 4%) in the US, a large percentage of whom do not speak English well.

We shouldn't expect these folks to be functionally literate in English.

Assuming that your 1/3 is correct, that leaves us about 15% of the population who ought to be literate but aren't.

What is the definition of "functionally literate"?

ira is online now  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 10:54 AM
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There are other points to consider too.

1. Learning style: some people learn by listening, some people learn visually and some people learn by doing.

2. US schools educate everyone. We spend a lot of money on special education which means that money can't be spent on other things. In many places, special education students must be included in regular classrooms. This is beneficial for the special ed student but probably does nothing to improve academic rigor.

3. If we suddenly decided that learning a foreign language was important, it would take a number of years to create teachers competent to teach.

4. As long as teachers are paid less than doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers, it will be difficult to recruit enough teachers who are able to provide the rigor we would like. God bless the many teachers who could earn far more but chose to teach anyway.
Barbara_in_CT is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 11:14 AM
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Just a note- there is no "Indian" language, there are a few languages spoken in India- Hindi is the "official" state language, used in gov't. There are 23 languages spoken in India.

Oriental is a term that I find racist, and I would recommend people learn to use the word Asian.


And yes, teachers are underpaid. As the child of an attorney (who forbade me from going into the profession as he sees it becoming a disgustingly overpopulated, dirty profession) I can tell you that there is no difference in educational preparation or professional expectations- that is, in a good school district.

I suggest that since this is supposedly a board devoted to travel and learning about other cultures, take some time and learn a language. If you know a language, teach it to your kids.

In my school district, we teach 5 languages- French, German, Latin, Russian and Spanish. We all know what #1 is, but the rest are all fairly close in numbers.

Students choose the language they want to study, so basically my job lies in the fact that students choose to study Russian.

Math teachers do not face this kind of pressure.

My boss likes to say that there are good math teachers, who are good teachers because they want to be. But Russian teachers are good because they have to be .

katya_NY is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 11:20 AM
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I'm not qualified to comment on the standard of languages in the US but here in Britain I don't think that it's terribly high, despite having continental Europe on our doorstep and increasing ease (financially and logistically) to travel abroad.

There is a clear malaise in this regard, with an underlying attitude that '..well, they all speak English, don't they'. (And I'm not ruling myself out of this)

I learnt French from the age of 9-16, and achieved grade As throughout. However, can I speak French? Not terribly well - though I'm not bad at understanding it. Maybe it's because my parent preferred to travel further than France when we went on holiday, tending to go to Spain/Greece/Northern Africa etc - and as an adult I'm not a great lover of France - so I never had a huge chance to practice.

I don't think that Americans should 'chastise' themselves for a lack of proficiency - after all what percentage of you travel outside the US? (And I appreciate that this is due to factors such as time - not a great deal of annual leave - and the fact that you live in a VAST nation where there is much to see and do)

I think that showing a willingness to speak another language when abroad is more important that a proficiency; take a guidebook and don't expect the host nation to speak English!
Tallulah is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 11:22 AM
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Another issue with the US public education system is the huge gaps between the schools in more well off areas and the schools in poor areas. I grew up in a reasonably affluent area with high property taxes. Our public schools were very good and the kids on the college prep track were largely prepared for university. The schools had enough money to operate in a reasonable way, the environment facilitated teaching and learning. We also had a relatively high level of parental involvement and expecation. The next district over was a different story. The quality of education there was much lower.
J_Correa is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 11:23 AM
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Well - I think there are 2 primary problems - with students not learning foreign languages - or a lot of other things:

Schools are expected to solve a lot of other social problems as well as educate children. If all teachers had to do was to teach well-behaved and motivated kids (like when I was in school) they could get throgh a lot more material then when they spend 50% of time dealing with other issues. (And the few kids that were not well-behaved or motivated were dealt with by prinicipals, counselors and parents - swiftly.) (I know I sound like a curmudgeon - but with kids more than anything else, garbage in, garbage out - and I'm tired of dealing with other people's garbage.)

Second, many parents do not demand quality education, nor are they willing to pay for it or expend any time to see their children get it. And I'm not talking about private schools. But I have worked with more than one woman who spent god knows what on a giant SUV every 2 or 3 years - but complained when school taxes went up a couple of hundred dollars. And she knew everything about those cars - but not the names of her kids teachers. (And any parents that accept "social promotion" deserve the children they get.)

So - while teachers are by no means all perfect - when given an often impossible job - most of them do try - until broken by the system. (This is why thousands of NYC teachers try to leave for the suburbs every year.)

As for foreign languages my (public) schools offered Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. (I believe most high schools no longer even offer Latin.) And you were required to start one in 7th grade.

IMHO the lack of ability to speak any foreign language (and most of the population of the US lives within a couple hours of a country speaking a foreign language - by air, if not by car) in simply a function of the massive failure of the US education system.
nytraveler is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 11:26 AM
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I'm not certain what the "official" definition of "functionally literate" is, but I would consider someone who cannot understand and fill out an application for employment to be "functionally illiterate". Sadly, that person is NOT an immigrant.
crefloors is online now  

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