I originally had the next paragraph near the bottom of this post, but decided to move it up.
Note: I am simply continuing a conversation here -- asking some questions. I am not an authority on language education nor can I predict the future our children will inherit. I can only speculate and work toward our students having the skills and attitudes to adapt to a changing world.
A few days ago I got a form e-mail from Edutopia announcing survey they were conducting about foreign languages students should be learning. Still running, the survey gives you a list of languages and you click the one of choice. The question is:
What’s the most practical language for students to learn?
I’ve waited a few days more before taking a closer look, and today they are up to 116 respondents. I found the results unsurprising, but interesting to read into. For instance, the most selected language is Spanish, with a resounding 56% of the votes. If I were to vote, from the options given, I’d probably have to go with Spanish, because for me, and my children, it would probably be the most “practical.”
The next two languages were French (9%) and Mandarin (15%). This indicates for me that there is a continuing sense of the classic in foreign languages. French was available to me in my small high school as well as Spanish and Latin (although we had the last Latin teacher in Gaston County, and she retired my Junior year). The high preference for Mandarin indicates that we’re drinking the Egg Drop. “The future is China!” ‘Course how many years ago was the future Japan.
Running on down the line, Arabic got 3 votes (a bit disappointing to me), Hebrew with 1, Japanese with 1, Korean and Farsi garnering zero, Russian with 1 vote, and “None of the above” with 17 votes, 15%.
The real story is in the comments that followed. One commenter, returning to the classic view, suggested that if you were interested in diplomacy, then you should learn French. If psychology is your desired field, then German. I remember being told that if I was interested in Science, then Latin should be my language.
Then others’ comments expressed the sentiment that initially occurred to me. One said it this way:
The question asks “what is the most practical language …”
Considering what we often see, English needs to be much better learned!
Others express frustration with students’ reliance on slang and “textspeak.” I do not share this frustration. If slang and textspeak are prominent communication avenues for my students, then I should respect that and work harder to make sure that they are also fluent in formal English.
Another person gave an interesting view, that we should learn the language of where we live and the language of our cultural heritage. I actually like this, though it probably doesn’t meet the request for “practical” language. I’d have to choose between German and Gallic — and as you see, I don’t look good in Lederhosen.
And there is nothing in this statement that I can disagree with:
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter which language a student learns. What’s important is that they become fluent in a second language. The process helps a student think globally, understand other cultures and value the efforts of those who speak English as a second language. Learning a second language builds confidence, helps kids organize their thoughts, and teaches students to stretch their envelope of confidence.
However, the commenter who said, “I am curious as to why English isn’t at the top of the list,” got to the heart of the issue. With the efforts going on in other countries to teach English to their students, especially what we’re hearing about China, does future success depend so much on what “other” languages you know, or on how well you can use English? I think this is an important question, which I do not know the answer to.
If you want to learn a foreign language, then you should. It is a good thing to do for the reasons mentioned above. If you anticipate living abroad, you should learn the language, and living abroad is an exciting and adventurous thing to do.
In solid-walled classrooms, learning a foreign language might have seemed like the best way to learn about a foreign culture. In classrooms with increasingly transparent walls (and a world with increasingly transparent borders), might we accomplish the same thing by simply putting our students in direct contact with those cultures and their inhabitants — taking them there through the networks and crafting learning experiences where they explore the culture through people who live it?
Our schools, more than ever, need professionals with knowledge of other cultures and other languages. But I wonder if, like librarians and creative arts educators, foreign language instruction should leverage to this time of rapid change, by re-invent itself into a position of greater influence and value.
Of course, this is a much bigger issue than can be explored in this single blog post nor from my limited perspective. So please, share your spare change. What do you think?