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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, 01:00 PM
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I've been following the thread off and on today. Note to self: find something better to do on a rare day off, like learning a language.

Anyway, the two tangents, with a little overlap, seem to be about the state of education and about the value of/problems with learning a foriegn language.

I went to school in the 70's. They offered 2 language classes - Spanish or French. I guess the assumption was that these were the most widespread. You can't get much more uninterested in a subject than a basic choice of either/or. If anything, it sounds like there are more choices now than when I was young. I guess I'm still not convinced that the issue of language education lies at the feet of the educational system.

I'm looking at the fact that after the first colonization, the vast majority of people walked into the US not speaking English. Most of us have completely lost the ability to speak the language our own family walked onto the shores with. There was a high value placed on learning English, and no value at all placed on learning anything else. In fact, the "you're in America, speak English!!" mentality has been around for a very long time and it's still around. How many people have you met that are incensed that there's even a Spanish option on ATMs or phone systems? I've met quite a few...

Now - take a society where any other languages are an after thought at best, and try to convince some kid that despite every message to the contrary, that sitting and learning proper grammatical structure for a language not spoken where he lives, and not likely to ever impact his life is important. Try convincing his parents, who've never left the US of it, and that it should share a slice of the tax dollars they're already complaining about. I mean, I think it's important, but it's because I have an interest in what's going on around the world, outside of the US. Certainly, I think too it would be an interesting question to ask why mostly only European languages but I guess that's a different issue all together.

One thought: regardless of what the subject is, I always found my greatest interest (and the most learning) came from context. Geometry meant something to me - it had tangibles. Measure a room, height of a flagpole, etc. Algebra I hated, although I could plow through the rote practice and did ok. All theory, no practical application. At least until later when I realized, as I was doing circuit board design, that I was using Algebra to calculate component values. Then the light bulb came on.

So, if a kid has no knowledge of France that's real and tangible, there's a pretty good chance that he's not going to see any practical application for French. And if you don't care, you don't really learn. So wouldn't it be great if he could learn about modern day French culture as he was learning the language, as opposed to a separate class on French history, which has no more connection to language learning than does Genghis Khan lessons drive a interest in speaking Mongolian. Is that how language teaching works these days, or are they still focusing on vocabulary and grammar?
Clifton is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 01:38 PM
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Hi Clifton- I cannot fairly generalize about other programs. but our school district does teach language in the context of life. We use "realia" and students learn about how the culture of the country (countries) of the language they are studying is changing, what life is like for teens there, etc.

My students love realia- whether it is reading a newpaper cartoon, or watching a TV commercial- learning song lyrics... grammar for the sake of grammar is not what we teach. I know that I learned it almost as a separate entity from the conversational language, and when I started teaching, I taught the same way. That is, until I realized that even kids who can perfectly conjugate a verb in a diagram don't do it in conversation.

I do teach the verb conjugations, diagrams and all- because I have to, plus some students love that type of structure. They learn it, though- in context.

I have first year students who have a handle on Russian accusative case who have never heard that term- they just know to change the endings b/c it "sounds right" to them now. THAT is language acquisition.

katya_NY is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 02:04 PM
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In Europe, music with English lyrics blasts in every mall & restaurant, and English slang words are everywhere, from McDonald's menus & magazines to websites. No wonder Europeans speak other languages with more ease - they are EXPOSED to it. They hear English, French, German, Italian, Russian, and every other language while walking down the street. They HEAR it & LEARN it. Just becasue they live there, doesn't mean they will all learn other dialects. There are plenty of people there who speak 1 language, but MANY pick up 3 or 4, minimum. Here,We can live our entire lives & only need & hear 1 language, but when you are surrounded by lots of other countries with different languages, you will no doubt learn more than 1.

I took 5 years of French. I've never been to France, and have only used the language when I was in Italy in emergencies, when people didn't know English, but had some French. I've taught myself some Czech terms. It's possoble to learn when you're older, of course, but without the structure of a class setting, I'm distracted by a million things, so I've only gotten so far.

amp322 is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 02:10 PM
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Well, if W's "leave no child behind" didn't place the emphasis on "teaching to the test," creativity might return to the classrooms. Teachers hate it and it doesn't seem to be going anyone any good.

Where students do well, whether in city or suburban schools, parents have lots to do with it. There isn't a child of any friend or relative, taught in either environment who hasn't far surpassed the general thought that we're doing a lousy job in the US. And, all speak some language other than English fluently; whether they'll ever have reason to use it, is something else!
Sep 2nd, 2006, 02:44 PM
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First, it is a misconception that “everyone” in Europe speaks English or another language, let alone many languages (as I have heard people claim).

Go to the website of the European Union, www.europa.eu. There you can read the results of studies done by the EU of the language capabilities of their people. Half of all Europeans can speak only their mother tongue. This on a continent where there are four major languages and the most prominent one, German, is spoken as a native language by only 18% of the population.

English, by the way, is spoken as a second language by about 38% of the people on the western continent. True, most Europeans today study English in school, but I have spoken to many non-English-speaking Europeans who told me that they studied English in school, but never use it, and can’t remember. About half of the European teenagers with whom I have spoken did not speak English to me.

That is a similar situation to Americans. Half of all American high school students take 2 or 3 years of a foreign language, but with little opportunity to use it, they soon forget.

For most people in the U.S., a foreign language has little real benefit.

For a European, being bilingual, in reality, means speaking your local language, plus English. Most Americans speak the local language plus English. They just happen to both be the same language. I guess we are effectively as “bilingual” as most Europeans.
Larryincolorado is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 02:54 PM
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nytraveler, I think you are making a lot of broad statements and generalizations here. Back when you were in school the kids were all well-behaved and motivated? I find that hard to believe. There always has been and always will be disruptive students in any classroom, that is a fact of life that teachers have to deal with.

And I would say that many, many school systems have foreign language requirements beginning in the 7th grade. My son sure does. But, let's face it, unless you immerse yourself in a language it is very difficult to become fluent. Like it or not English has become the primary language in which to do business in this world. Until that changes, don't expect Americans by and large to become fluent in other languages whether that's right or wrong.
wyatt92 is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 03:01 PM
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You can spend your whole life very comfortably in Germany without knowing a single word of English. There are many "denglish" words in marketing aimed at youngsters and even companies like Deutsche Bahn use "pidgin" english but it's not like everybody would understand it. I've decided to use german pronouciation for those words. (Try to say "meeting point" with a horrible german accent). Sounds more like chinese, but who cares, if DB can live with speaking foeign languages to their customers, I can live with ridiculing them
logos999 is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 03:12 PM
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In Norway, I was amazed at how flawlessly English was spoken. When I asked how they'd mastered it so well, the answer was that in addition to learning it in school, they'd grown up watching American TV. The top American shows are all broadcast there (in English) with subtitles.
Songdoc is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 03:37 PM
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katya, it sounds like they come a long way in teaching language. Or at least your class has. That's a big improvement over our lessons. Our teacher was a native Spanish speaker, and she obviously cared about her language, but the class itself was soooo dry. I can imagine how much more interested I'd have been if I knew then what was out there to see and do in the Spanish speaking world. But there seemed to be an assumption we are all on board, just by having chosen the class. In reality, we were required to take 2 semesters of foriegn language... and I picked Spanish based on nothing more than I knew there were more Spanish speaking countries than French ones, so I *might* be more likely to need it. I could kick myself now, mind you, for not putting more into it.
Clifton is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 03:37 PM
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nytraveler...i would stick to just analysing the problems at home rather than to try to compare with europe. your view of what education is like here in europe is not credible.
walkinaround is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 03:48 PM
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as an ESL speaker, (and i know probably the most useless language on the planet for travel, but sometimes you get lucky), this is my feelings on the issue.

I learned english moving to the US. Almost forgot my mother tongue b/c for a while we lived near no one who spoke it, and my mom wanted to practice her english (dad spoke it already).

Cut to highschool. to graduate needed 2yrs of a foreign language. took spanish b/c it was easy and everyone did, and german b/c i wanted to learn it, a little stuck as i knew enough to test out of the first 2 semesters. Which meant i didn't need to take a foreign language in college, so i didn't. My teacher was very very good however, so that 2yrs of high school german is still enough for me to get by in germany, though often it causes more problems when ppl think i *speak* german.

IMHO in order for americans to learn a 2nd language, one we need to get over the fact "that everyone speaks english anyway" and we are somehow superior to those who are multiglots (this was the dominating opinion where i lived, kids even argued w/ my language teachers that they didn't need to expend the effort to learn b/c ppl would speak english).

Start with immersion in elementary, that's how my dad learned english, they had to go to english class since elementary.

If I have kids, not only will they be going to the school to learn my mother tongue on the weekends even if they hate it (my parents gave in to whinging and let me stop going, a huge mistake, i read like a 2nd grader and have the vocabulary of a baby), and they'll be in a school with a bilingual immersion program so they can learn when they're young enough to "get it" easier.

I think the US school system needs to be revamped, and non-child left behind is actually doing more harm than good (at least where i live). Also parents need to feel a responsibility for their children instead of yelling at teachers that their brat doesn't deserve a C for very sub quality work. Many times if they can't cow-tow the teacher into changing the grade, they run to the prinicpal who puts the pressure on the teacher. it's a multipronged issue and no quick solution is going to come along and magically fix things until people stop being lazy. Maybe if we got rid of MTV (i hate that channel so much, it makes kids think it's okay to be vapid stupid wastes of space).

i have family in holland, and they were shocked at what i paid to go to school (undergrad and grad). they couldn't believe I had to pay for something so basic.

Long story short, it's a lack of collective will to change.
kc_the_bum is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 04:26 PM
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In public school in Cleveland, I was dragooned into French class in second grade. They kept me there through fourth grade, when we moved to the suburbs. When I left the Cleveland schools, I think it is accurate to say that I could read and write French, although certainly not at the highest level.

The suburbs didn't offer French in elementary school, and there was no occasion for me to use the language, so it atrophied. In high school and college I was in technical fields, where a foreign language was not required, so I didn't take one.

So while once I was conversant in French, that is but a dim memory, and when I am now asked if I speak French, I say, accurately, no.

If our country was smaller and had more interaction with neighboring countries where other languages were spoken, I think we would be more likely to be multilingual. Now that I think of it, I can in fact speak Canadian!
clevelandbrown is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 05:16 PM
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"non-child left behind is actually doing more harm than good (at least where i live)."

Why do you say that?
Cato is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 05:25 PM
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As a recently retired language teacher, I'm enjoying this post. The idea of necessity or we won't learn it may be true in part. But the larger picture is the general state of education and our society. We have grown by far to be an "entertainment society". Check the statistics and look at how many people in the medical field, engineering, scientists etc are foreign students- you may be in for a shock! In fact I just read that engineering majors currently in college are 68% foreign students. New York State is leading the way in the "dummying down" of America. The state claims to be toughening the standards- what a sad public relations scam! The curve on the American History regents(state test) mult. choice part is so big that practically anyone can now pass it with minimal effort. The state tried to say how their toughening the Language regents by requiring students to write 2,100 word paragraphs. What they don't tell the public is according to the grading scale, a student is barely penalized 1 point for writing only 50 words. In American schools there are sports, music, concerts, plays, endless field trips- the list goes on and on. In many other countries, students attend high school to pursue academics- good lord, imagine that! A French student who lived with our family couldn't get over all the distractions in American schools. Often in Europe, if Johnny wants to play football he can be part of a club team in the region where he lives. Teachers now have to make Johnny "feel good" about himself. Hey Johnny, tell you what, do your homework and I'll give you all sorts of praise and make you "feel good." Ok, ending my tirade, I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching career, but the battle to get students to work seems to be getting much tougher, the work ethic seems to be quickly diminishing. ALL students should not be pushed into the college track, but those that take that route should be challenged.
Beatle is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 05:27 PM
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Beatle - keeping talking like that and the leave it to the teachers union crowd is going to really get pissed off.
Cato is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 05:28 PM
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Sorry, better correct my grammar- "The state tried to say how they're(not their) toughening the standards....
Beatle is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 05:43 PM
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where i lived, (and my mom is an ESL/History teacher), was in a rural school district. They had the threat of any and all title something funding being pulled because certain teachers were actually *gasp* failing kids who weren't passing, which caused their overall numbers to go down.

The prinicpal had a meeting and chastised them for risking the funding, and implemented an independent study program for those "at risk students" which was basically turn in an EASY worksheet packet per week. Not to mention parents coming in and bullying the teachers/prinicpal to change grades.

then if you take my aunt who teaches in a different part of texas, in a poorer school district in a large city, she teaches second grade, and often complains about "teaching to the test" and the time she has to take out of teaching basic skills, to teach the kids how to pass this performance test in order to ensure funding.

as I understand it, no child left behind penalizes schools which aren't performing to "standards." So schools take time to teach the skills needed to pass the test, instead of teaching the fundamentals. Others might not agree, but from what I've seen in my family, I don't believe it's helping.

(and i don't know why i feel this is relevant, but i took most of my high school classes at the nearby junior college and recieved dual credit because my parents didn't believe the high school courses rigorous enough-my poor spelling not withstanding).
kc_the_bum is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 05:45 PM
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beatle- I do teach FL in NYS, and I know that the examination standards are silly and ridiculous for most things. My students stress over the Proficiency Exam in level one, but the reality is that the exam is so far below their level of language that it is a cake walk for them.

The difference comes at the change from the Regents level to the following 2 years for us, either AP or college credit courses. These classes have solid standards, so our kids aren't being taught to the test, a la NCLB- they are preparing for college level study. MOST students do go on to the college credit classes (can earn 10 college credits in Russian- nice bonus).

NCLB is a horrid educational standard. Soon enough it will be looked back upon like "New Math".

It comes down to the educational community that exists surrounding each school: the kids need to know that the classes are important, their parents need to support the teachers, and the teachers need to love the kids and want to be there. When you have these things, no amount of $$ or poverty will affect the educational outcome.

katya_NY is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 06:12 PM
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wyatt92 -

Yes - back in the last ice age - when I was in school (and New York city public schools through 7th grade) children were not disruptive and were - in the large part - motivated.

They were not disruptive because they were not allowed to be. The worst you ever saw was a spit ball or a wise ass remark or someone push someone else on the playground. Because if the kids were disprutive they were out of the class and in the principal's office - as were their parents. And kids that were seriously disruptive were suspended. (There were no guns or knives or gang fights - I guess because the kids that did those things were in juvenile detention - or just truant. Probably not the best solution for them - but it allowed teachers to give a better education to most kids.)

And yes, most kids were motivated, because their parents required it.

As I said, one of the issues is that overall societal problems are being dumped on schools and teachers - who therefore have limited time to teach - and so can't really require - or provide excellence. Except in those districts where parents demand it - and are willing/able to pay for it. (And yes - that means all sorts of special programs for some kids - but education costs what it costs. And the less time parents spend with kids the more schools are going to cost - or the more ineffective they are going to be.)

And I'm not an expert on european education - I just know that europen children on the whole score better on all standard tests than american children - except for those from the highest rated districts.

And the article in the Time - where this started - is a testament to the fact that we are graduating mases of children who are not ready for college - but intend to go. Either they should be properly prepared - or they should be counseled to seek other paths after high school.
nytraveler is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2006, 06:14 PM
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kc- How true about failing students, and how sad that for many parents it's all about the "grade". Many would rather have Johnny get a 95 from an "easy" teacher and learn nothing, rather than an 80 and be challenged and learn twice as much.
katya- Great comment about the importance of the educational community, parents, teachers etc. I agree that parents must instill in their children the importance of education. But teachers also must CHALLENGE the students. Too many of my colleagues are worried about the students "liking" them. In my class it's- Hey, Johnny, do your daily work, and I'll "like" you, and heap all sorts of praise on you!
Beatle is offline  

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