Because

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Something full of magic, religion, bullsh*t.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Every American child should grow up knowing a second language, preferably English.

Alex Whitlock has a thoughtful post up regarding the relative dearth of bilingual speakers in the U.S. as compared to Europe. Roughly 50% of Europeans claim to be proficient in a second language as opposed to 9% in the U.S.

The numbers don't surprise me. It's only natural that Europe has a higher level of bilingualism for at least two reasons. First, English is the lingua franca (I kill myself) of business and diplomacy in the world -- it took over the top spot from French over the past century. Much of that is a result of U.S. cultural, military, and economic hegemony and to the imperialism of the British Empire. When Arabs protest in Arab countries, you'll notice that their signs aren't written in Swedish. The simple fact is that, while there are a number of particularly "useful" languages to know, English has the highest utilitarian benefit. An Italian who knows English has acquired a useful skill; and American who has mastered Italian can watch Fellini films without the subtitles.

The second reason for the gap is what I'll call "peer proximity." Europe is a tight, small conglomeration of people and states on relatively equal economic and cultural footing. It is only natural that those living in one state would learn the language of their neighboring country. I was raised in North Carolina, and if the dominant language of Virginia had been German then I would have been much more inspired to get a working knowledge of the language. But Centinel, you may say, you live in Texas and that's next door to Mexico, how come you can't habla the Espanol? That is the "peer" part of "peer proximity." Rightly or wrongly, it's clear that Texans don't view Mexico as a peer state. This isn't a big surprise when you consider that thousands of Mexicans sneak into Texas every year to perform menial jobs. Why should a Texan learn Spanish? To give clearer instructions to their gardeners? No, the unspoken opinion is that it is the responsibility of those native Spanish speakers to learn English, not the other way around.

That said, I actually feel that schools spend too much time on foreign languages. I took 4 years of Spanish -- that's over 700 hours of instruction -- and I know just enough Spanish to order at Taco Bell. What a waste! If my parents had forced me to spend an hour a day taking piano, I probably would be a concert pianist. I'd be a black belt in a martial art with 700 hours of class time. Damn. Either would have actually come in handy on occasion. Instead, I was forced to spend an hour a day learning to conjugate verbs just long enough to pass the next test. HayZues, I'm not even sure I knew anyone fluent in Spanish when I was in high school who didn't teach the class.

I think that mandatory foreign language at the high school level is a waste of time. If a kid doesn't know much of a foreign language by the time he's 15, he ain't gonna learn it staring at the sombrero and maracas hanging on the activity board in Ms. Hacklemeyer's Spanish class. The key is to teach children young, when their brains are absorbing information, and then to make sure they don't get rusty by occasionally immersing them in the culture where the language is native. I have friends who have their children attend pre-kindergarten where they are taught foreign languages. The little monkeys suck it up like oreo cookies.*

Me, I've promised my longsuffering mother, who believes in bilingualism, that I will begin working on another language when I master this one. That is, not any time soon.

* Foreign language trivia of the day: "oreo" means "hill" in Greek. The cookies are thus named because they were originally mound-shaped.
 
Centinel 11:14 AM #

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