A second language

One of the great fallacies in modern educational thought is the baseless assumption that the present generation – with its limited knowledge of the past and understanding of the present – can accurately forecast what skills and knowledge will be useful to a younger generation moving toward an inscrutable future.

For the most part, Americans resolve this difficulty by continuing to teach the same subjects, in the same order, in much the same way.  This approach to curriculum has the advantage of convenience:  It doesn’t require much thought.  

Its disadvantage, however, is fairly obvious.  Most adults will freely confess that much of their own high school education was a waste of time.  But if that’s true, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the same education – perhaps a bit dumbed-down, with a few added technological bells and whistles – will be even less useful to today’s students.

And if so, shouldn’t we be taking a hard look at our present curriculum?

To be sure, most of us find it easier to wrap our minds around such concrete matters as attendance zones and school nutrition programs.  Still, arguably, our public schools were instituted to teach something –  which would make our eighty-year old curriculum worthy of a modicum of attention.

And where better to begin than with the rare curricular area which will, almost indisputably, be of importance in the future – yet at which our schools have always done an abysmal job?

Foreign languages.

Doubtless, some students graduate from our high schools fluent in a second language.   These exceptions generally fall into one of two categories:  1) gifted students who have had the advantage of foreign travel, after-school and summer enrichment programs, etc.; or 2) students who grew up in bilingual homes.

The student who achieves fluency after three, four or five years of language instruction from public school classes alone is, indeed, rara avis.  

Most high school seniors graduating this month will have several language credits on their transcripts, but not much ability to function in a culture which speaks the language they have supposedly learned.  

This, as they enter a globalized society in which the knowledge of multiple languages is, increasingly, a necessity – and not only for corporate executives, diplomats, and scientists.

Scan the classified ads or craigslist under clerical and administrative jobs.  Ask a soldier who has seen service overseas – especially in a war zone.  

For that matter, ask a cop or an EMT if it’s possible to function on today’s streets without a working knowledge of at least two languages.

In today’s world, monolingualism is a handicap as severe as many physical disabilities.

Yet we continue to approach language instruction by drawing it out over several years, using grammar-based methods which require students to think first in English, then translate in their heads.  

If there were no better way to teach a new language, this might be acceptable.  But almost everyone knows there’s a better way.  It’s called immersion, and – for those who would like to see it in practice, a quick drive to Charlottesville is all that’s necessary.

For some decades now, UVA’s Summer Language Institute has offered eight-week intensives in a number of languages.  It’s a rigorous program, based on six or seven hours of class and drill every day.  Students studying the same language live together in one house.  The use of English is forbidden from day one.

But the results are remarkable.  Students entering SLI with absolutely no knowledge of a language can leave with speaking fluency – and twelve hours of college credit.
Thirty summers ago, I started the program with a few words of German and left with the ability to converse with natives, at their speed, without a detectable American accent.

Anyone taking French, German, Italian or Spanish – for some odd reason, SLI doesn’t offer Portuguese – would have at least an equivalent experience today.

SLI courses in languages using non-Roman writing systems – Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian or Tibetan – work a bit differently, to allow for greater focus on the new writing system.  

The point is this:  Instead of spending years to acquire a severely limited facility with language, SLI students achieve genuine fluency - with college credit - over one summer.

That’s because immersion works better.  Students who study language intensively – without other distractions – learn to think in that language, instead of translating in their heads.

Which is, after all, the way all of us learned our first language.

To be sure, it would take a revolution to create pure immersion programs in our public schools, but embracing the immersion model could lead to significant reforms, such as a semi-immersive, summer school course for the second year of a language – immediately after a traditional first year.

The point is this:  What we’re doing now didn’t work for us.  It’s not working for our kids.  

And a better model exists – just two hours west of Chester.


Robert, A strong teacher,

Robert, A strong teacher, with a firm commitment to immersion, can do a lot. I had a similarly formidable French teacher - Mr. Howard Blackmon, at TDHS. The county's annual award for excellence in language teaching is named in his honor.

That said, there are limits to what can be achieved in two or three 90-minute blocks per week. If nothing else, I'd like to see the first and second years of language taught in a single year - so students would have a 90-minute block EACH day. But I really like the summer option. Get the groundwork in the regular year, then spend four hours, five days a week, for the length of summer-school. Then start level three in the fall, with no need to review what you forgot over the summer.

It's just more efficient. And, as you say, immersion works.

Foreign Languages Via Immersion

I heartily agree with the principle espoused in this article. However, immersion need not be limited to summer school alone.

Long ago (1965) and far way (Delaware), I took French I in 10th grade — and text books were prohibited. French I was entirely conversational. English was allowed only on rare occasions, and even then only by the teacher to explain something. There were slide shows, audio tapes, and other instructional aids, but we did not see a text book until French II.

That radical departure was a struggle at first, but well worth it in the long run. I am still far more conversational in French than I ever was in Russian, which I took in college the more traditional way.

In this way, an effect similar to summer school immersion can be achieved even within normal school hours. Either way, some form of immersion is the only way to go.

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