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December 11, 2006

So Long As They Can Speak American

Without having much opinion on whether students American schools should reemphasize foreign language education, it seems pretty clear American students should stop learning so much French. Unless quite a few more folks than I think plan on doing development work in Africa, the absurd amount of French-language education going on in schools makes no sense. Indeed, the choices offered by most schools seem a century or so out of date. You generally get classes in Latin, French, and the type of Spanish spoken in Spain. All good things, but given that each language taught is another language not taught, why we're not throwing those resources into Chinese and a nearer dialect of Spanish baffles me.

December 11, 2006 | Permalink


Well, given the Democrats plans for Iraq, maybe it is appropriate to teach French.

After all, French is the international language of surrender.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Dec 11, 2006 9:04:52 AM

I speak pretty good conversational Spanish and find it very helpful where I live. That being said, I still expect immigrants to learn English. If I moved to a foreign country, I would expect to have to learn their language. I would not demand that everyone speak mine.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 11, 2006 9:07:28 AM

There's still an awful lot of French spoken in Africa.

Posted by: theophylact | Dec 11, 2006 9:36:11 AM

The same can be said for German. I took four years of German, and have used it exactly once in my life (in Italy, of all places). Nobody told me that something like 99% of Germans speak English, which makes the usefulness of German somewhat limited.

The problem, of course, is that we have a glut of French- and German-speaking teachers around, while teachers who can teach Arabic or Mandarin (which are far more important) are few and far between. Ramping up Spanish teaching won't be hard, fortunately--plenty of dual-language speakers around--but getting a significant number of teachers competent not just to get by in Mandarin but to actually teach it will take years, if not decades.

Posted by: Jeff Fecke | Dec 11, 2006 9:49:37 AM

There's also an awful lot of French spoken in France and parts of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland which, despite recent rightwing silliness, are still popular tourist destinations. Most Americans who learn foreign languages will only use them as tourists.

Posted by: me2i81 | Dec 11, 2006 9:51:07 AM

I only learned Mexican Spanish in school. And I grew up in Wisconsin too, not a border state.

Posted by: Greg | Dec 11, 2006 10:02:51 AM

Frankly, it doesn't much matter what kind of Spanish you learn, it's like English and not like Arabic in its regional differences. If you speak any Spanish, you can be understood (although South Americans WILL smile when they hear you using "vosotros"), and you'll pick up the regional variations in time.

This is the challenge of running a nation which natively speaks the world's most common second language--what do you encourage people to learn as a second language? Everyone already know the most useful "generalist" language, so arguing for a second language means you're making a value choice, suggesting that certain parts of the world are more important than others and deserve to be specialized in. Why China and not Latin America? Why the Middle East and not the Russian Republics? Do we pick a language based on how many people in the world speak it, or on how many people immigrating to America speak it?


And, of course, French teachers need jobs and we're unwilling to pay a premium for Chinese teachers, so why would they show up in our schools?

Posted by: anonymous | Dec 11, 2006 10:15:01 AM

Well, without voicing much opinion on which other languages students should be learning as well (my, aren't we feeling wishy-washy today!), let me support foreign language education for a reason that has nothing to do with globalization or whatever Time's cover story was: in my personal experience, studying any second language helped my understanding of the first, or languages in general. I think I had a better command of English in college than most of my classmates, and was better prepared to help kids in high school in some subbing jobs soon after college, (and, um, I'm a reporter now), and I think I owe a lot of that to being fluent in French, oddly enough. Anyone can learn a language the natural way, but by junior high, grammar and roots of words and esoteric, cerebral stuff like that just went in one ear and out the other for me. But I still needed at least a little of those things to write coherently, and to write well, more than just a little. That's a mark in favor of French, because it's one of the roots of modern English (as is German, and Latin, and even Arabic has given us a lot of vocabulary — we're sort of lucky that English is such a bastardized language). I wouldn't support studying French instead of some hypothetical useful language on the basis of this alone, but don't assume that tourism or social studies by proxy are the only values of language classes, either.

Also, those first two comments were hilarious. Your dedication to the message is admirable, guys.

Posted by: Cyrus | Dec 11, 2006 10:16:02 AM

As a gay man, let me tell you, I rue the day I decided to take Spanish and not French. ;) I've been playing catch-up ever since, especially since I'm a fashion person as well, and boy would it have been helpful to talk to the Chanel Haute Couture vendeuse in French.

As for Spanish, my first (Cuban) Spanish teacher was very good for explaining the differences between Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish; you only look snotty speaking Castilian in Latin America, from what I can tell, so it's not the worst thing. Unfortunately, the worst thing for me is that I look Hispanic, and I get a lot of people all the time trying to ask me questions in rapid fire Spanish, which I just can't do.

And I'm taking all of this tongue in cheek - because I think Ezra's essentially right, but for goodness sake, let's be glad someone is learning something about a language and culture outside of America, when so few people actually travel abroad (or even have a passport).

Posted by: weboy | Dec 11, 2006 10:28:53 AM

By the way Fred, the part about not demanding others speak English to you abroad is largely moot - almost everywhere I've traveled, their English is better than my attempt to struggle in their language (...which brings me back to French, because in France, it was the look of disappointment - or possibly disdain - that really got to me). :)

Sadly, I do agree to some extent with Fred - people who work in service roles in the American economy should really be speaking English. That said, I think it's just meanness to say we can't provide bilingual (or multilingual) forms, signs, documents etc... where they are needed. It think the message is "we'd encourage you to speak English, but we won't penalize you unnecessarily for being an adult in a new country without knowing English." Puts us a step ahead of the French, anyway. ;)

Posted by: weboy | Dec 11, 2006 10:36:23 AM

This is the challenge of running a nation which natively speaks the world's most common second language--what do you encourage people to learn as a second language? Everyone already know the most useful "generalist" language, so arguing for a second language means you're making a value choice, suggesting that certain parts of the world are more important than others and deserve to be specialized in. Why China and not Latin America? Why the Middle East and not the Russian Republics? Do we pick a language based on how many people in the world speak it, or on how many people immigrating to America speak it?

Quoted for emphasis. This is a really good point. Also, keep in mind that what's considered a useful or important language changes significantly over time. When I was in school, Russian and Japanese were considered the "important" languages that not enough people were learning. Today it is Chinese and Arabic. 15 years from now, it might be something completely different. We do a lousy job predicting the future, so picking a second language based on whether it will be useful when you grow up is a risky game.

Learning any second language is better than learning no second language. My international classmates shame me with the fact that they're non-native English speakers studying at the graduate level in their second, or third, or even 4th language.

Posted by: fiat lux | Dec 11, 2006 10:45:32 AM

Ezra, since fluency in a foreign language learned in school is primarily a middle to upper-middle class endeavor, it is quite likely that those students are going to be spending more time travelling to French-speaking locations in Europe than they will travelling to Mexico. In a related phenomenon, part of the focus on French is because the language is presumed to have much more social cachet than Spanish.

I, myself, learned Spanish in high school and Mandarin in college. My travels have found me more often in French-speaking countries or meeting foreigners during my travels whose second language was French rather than English or Spanish. I can definitely say that I've had plenty more encounters in which I wish I knew French than I have where Spanish was a necessity.

Posted by: Constantine | Dec 11, 2006 10:50:36 AM

Correction: I meant to say that among foreigners I've met in my travels who did not speak English as a second language, it was more likely that they spoke Franch, rather than Spanish.

Posted by: Constantine | Dec 11, 2006 11:08:49 AM

Look, dude. You think I wanted to take 6 years of French in junior high & high school? Growing up in NYC? Where *everyone* speaks Spanish? No, I was assigned. Nothing I could do.

Posted by: Spencer | Dec 11, 2006 11:24:53 AM

The right thing to do would be to combine Headstart/day care resources with language education. Hire a million Chinese and a half million Latin Americans to come to America for a year or two, to do child care, and teach the young 'uns. That's the age at which God intended kids to learn languages, not high school when it is hopeless.

Actually learning French would at least be charming, but the reality is that millions of Americans study French for years and learn nothing. We need to pay heed to biology on this, and put resources where they will do some good.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Dec 11, 2006 11:57:33 AM

Adding on what Cyrus said, I essentially learned all the technicalities of English grammar in my French grammar class. (Sometimes that shows.)

Spanish is generally a much more practical language to know, but for those going into the humanities French and German are very important languages.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 11, 2006 12:27:55 PM

If the reason to learn a foreign language is to increase the number of hotties you can talk to (and that's as good a reason as any), then it still makes more sense for U.S. students to learn French or Spanish. Quebec and Mexico are right next door, and much closer than China or the Middle East.

Posted by: Todd | Dec 11, 2006 1:04:13 PM


Colleges language departments have been ramping up the number of hires in Arabic and Spanish departments the last few years, and student interest in those two have skyrocketed. Mandarin Chinese is already very popular at the college level, and from direct experience I can tell you that all three are starting to make an impact at high school levels, too.

Ultimately, the reason it's taking a while is exactly what Jeff Fecke states -- finding qualified teachers will take a while, years if not a generation or more. Meantime, there's still plenty of French and German teachers around (though much, much less than were around in, say, the mid-70s). It takes a while for institutions to catch up to demand.

Posted by: KL | Dec 11, 2006 1:29:45 PM

What about learning another language for the love of its sound and attendant culture? I learned English as a baby and Spanish as a child because, in both cases, I had to and I just did. But as a grownup I'm busy working on Italian and French; the sound of them gets to me, and I love almost everything about both cultures.

Perhaps we ought to do as the multi-lingual Netherlands residents, secure in the knowledge that they and only they speak Dutch, are doing: all children learn English (as a matter of practicality) in school and for their third language are offered the choice of French or German to study.

In our case, everyone would be required to study Spanish (again, as a matter of practicality) from day one, and choose a third language based on what teachers and resources are available in their schools' districts.

Posted by: litbrit | Dec 11, 2006 1:35:57 PM

I don't know why anyone wastes time learning a foreign language when they can be learning something useful like plumbing or welding. But I can tell you from my experiences talking to strippers in Montreal, knowing a little French can come in handy.

Posted by: Barringer | Dec 11, 2006 1:59:27 PM

It's kind of hard to predict what second languages will come in handy, but I second what others have said about the inherent value of foreign language study. I took five years of Latin of all things, and while I'm never going to "need" it, it has, I think, had a significant positive impact on my writing skills in English. It lets you think about language and syntax more freely because you're no longer tied to what you're used to hearing in conversational speech. Starting Latin in 7th grade, for example, made reading Shakespeare in high school easier, because I could deal with things like verbs after direct objects and other fuhky syntax that otherwise I would have had to think about more. (Still a slave to the footnotes for vocabulary, though. Especially in the comedies...)

Posted by: Isabel | Dec 11, 2006 3:38:07 PM

Obviously, one of the reasons for teaching European langauges is that they are a lot easier for native speakers of English to learn than Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic, certainly using formal methods in high school (though I dig Bruce Wilder's idea of using foreign nannies - I have friends who can speak beginners' Tagalog and Zulu thanks to their nannies).

Why French beats Spanish is more of a mystery - the pronunciation and basic grammar of French is probably a bit easier, so it probably comes down to the inertia noted by Jeff Fecke and others. Also, I totally second Isabel's point about learning Latin- the sheer deadness (and beauty) of Latin make it a magnificent tool for learning about linguistic structures

Posted by: JohnTh | Dec 11, 2006 3:49:55 PM

Others have touched on the importance of learning languages young, so I'll just repeat it and say that every elementary school kid should be learning Spanish from the start of Kindergarten. A third language should be mandatory from the start of junior high, although the problem with learning Mandarin or Arabic that late stems from the fact that they are incredibly difficult languages, although if we decided to teach those languages at the start of school (instead of Spanish), we'd be substituting a language that may be very valuable for preparing our students to land a nice job in international business or in an intelligence service, with a language that is infinitely more practical in the States.

Also, I learned Mexican Spanish in high school (not too long ago) and Latin American Spanish in college. Do most of you guys actually learn the Spanish spoken in Spain? If so, how long ago was that?

Additionally, if learning a language is your tool for getting hotties (as Todd mentioned)--screw French and Spanish and go for Italian. You might not meet as many Italians as Spanish or French babes, but I've long been jealous of my American friends who get girls by saying romantic sounded things to girls in Italian.

Posted by: Eric the Political Hack | Dec 11, 2006 4:02:31 PM

Do most of you guys actually learn the Spanish spoken in Spain? If so, how long ago was that?

When I lived in Honduras, I learned local dialect from friends and socializing. In school, formal Spanish--Castillian--was taught (not as a second language, but as the language, the way English is taught here). That was in the early-mid 1970's.

And I gotta tell you: there isn't that much difference. Castillian Spanish is spoken more slowly and deliberately. The "z" sound is pronounced almost in a lisp, so you'd say cruth for cruz, and so forth. And the second person plural familiar has a separate word, as another commenter pointed out (vosotros); in Latin American Spanish, we just say Ustedes. And there are a few different words for things: caro vs.coche, for example. But a Barcelonan would not have a problem understanding or being understood in Miami, nor would his Miami granddaughter be lost when visiting Madrid.

That said, I have to laugh at the whole "Latin American" Spanish vs. Spain's Spanish. Latin America is a huge region, more conceptual than geographic, and within that region there are many dialects--how on earth can a single Rosetta Stone "Latin American Spanish" course cover Cuban, Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Costa Rican, Panamanian, Chilean (etc.) differences?

When we moved to Miami, I was surprised how different Cuban Spanish was. The pace is rapid-fire, like Mexican Spanish, but the words are often clipped (like Napolitano Italian) and some words and phrases do not copy, as it were. Tell a Cuban person you'll do something ahorita and they think you mean in a little while, when you actually mean right this minute. That sort of thing. But it's comparable to a New Yorker visiting, say, Atlanta. After a while, you aborb the different meanings and slang terms.

I am rambling, yes, but I want to encourage people to stop casting aspersions on Spain's Spanish. It is neither outdated nor snobbish. Think of it as you would England's English: a good many people speak it, and not all of them are nobility, I assure you. It's the motherland tongue from which the "newer" variants of the language evolved, and it's the language of much great literature, too.

Posted by: litbrit | Dec 11, 2006 4:34:11 PM

litbrit, I got a couple of lessons in Spanish dialects back in 1978. My Roommate Carlos and Carlos-Across-the-Hall made it clear to us other freshmen that Cuban was a vastly inferior dialect to their Puerto Rican. C-A-t-H called Cubans, "sh*t talkin' people".

And Jamie reported how worried his high school Spanish teacher had been when Jamie and his classmates ventured to Miami for a conference. The teacher feared that spending time out in the Cuban markets would ruin their accents.

Posted by: jackd | Dec 11, 2006 5:27:38 PM

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