About a million years ago, circa 1979, I began my journey through the peculiar American ritual best described as “phony, ineffectual foreign language instruction that will never, ever teach you to speak a foreign language.”

At the beginning of my first year of French, I loved the class. French, so lovely, so glamorous, so sophisticated. I couldn’t wait until I could speak it fluently.

By the middle of the year I hated that class so much that I had become a trouble-maker—a role completely out of character for me. I lobbed small objects at my classmates and smart-mouthed the teacher. But I got perfect scores on every test. That wasn’t hard to do because the class was just. so. easy. The glacial pace of instruction made me want to bang my head on the desk. Instead, I sat with my arms folded and glared.

Four years later I completed my high school French studies. Had I visited Paris at that time (and I should’ve, why didn’t I?) I probably could’ve muddled through, but it would have taken a great deal of patience on the part of the Parisians who had the misfortune to come into contact with my sadly monolingual self. Like the vast majority of native-born Americans, je ne parle pas francais.

Jumping to the present, my daughter Little Bit, now 13 and in 7th grade, has embarked on her phony, ineffectual Spanish studies. Studying a language is important to her. She’s jealous that several of her friends—the children of Asian immigrants—are bilingual. Sadly, she’s been taking Spanish for two months now and has already concluded that she will never, ever learn to speak the language this way. I don’t think she’s resorted to trouble-making, but she comes home and tells me that she got a perfect score on her Spanish test but that it’s no big point of pride because the test was just. so. easy. The pace is glacial. She wants to bang her head on the desk.

Why? Why must it be this way? The citizens of other countries learn to speak other languages—usually English. And English is notoriously difficult for a non-native speaker to learn. They begin in early childhood and prioritize it.

Given the ever-increasing globalization of commerce, should we not place a priority on teaching our students functional skills in key languages? The most obvious candidates: Mandarin (world’s #1 most-spoken language) and Spanish (#2, including over 37 million people in the US).

If you’re going to wait until 7th grade or 9th grade to even begin foreign language instruction, you’re going to have to step it up from the glacial, head-banging pace that torments your most capable students.

At this point I would like to offer my apologies to Madame McKirahan, my junior high school French teacher. My behavior was execrable. But so was your class.



16 thoughts on “Tragique

  1. Because my school realized it was important to teach conversational French (and not just academic knowledge) we were forced to memorize phrases that were supposed to help us, well, conversate. All these years later, the only phrase I remember is “Ce n’est pas ce que tu m’as dit quand tu me la empruntez” which I believe translates as “That’s not what you said when you lent it to me”. It’s been forty-three years since Madame Dowdeswell taught me that, and I am still waiting for it to come up in conversation.

    • What your French teacher didn’t realize was that you were also being taught, “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” They should teach phrases that are useful in real life, like “do not speak to me until I’ve had coffee,” and “turn that #$%^ music down!”

      • Before I went to Japan in 1988, I bought a book and audiotape to learn a few useful Japanese phrases. I can ask where the elevator is and I can tell you that the toilet is broken. I can also ask where the toilet is and tell you that the elevator is broken.

  2. You know, it never occurred to me until right now that anyone thinks high school language requirements are intended to make American students bilingual. How cute!! I began learning French when we lived in London (reasonably, obviously) and got to the point that I could get by in France pretty easily. Of course, we went to France a few times, there were French novels available, lots of people around me knew passable French, and I started in elementary school. Then I spent thirty years in Texas, some of it working in cantinas, and now I can understand (but not speak) limited Spanish. School is the wrong place to learn a foreign language, in my opinion, unless you’re going to do it the way we do math, starting in K and for several hours a day until graduation.

    • Where would an American kid learn a foreign language, if not school? And yes, I’m talking about starting early and integrating it into the curriculum. Immersion schools have a pretty good track record, I think, but they are few and far between.

      As for math–oy, I think my next post is going to be about math instruction or the lack thereof.

      • I think a construction site, a restaurant job, a volunteer position would all be good places to learn fluency while living in America. We have lots of extracurricular programs around here for kids who want to learn another language.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to teaching foreign language in schools, I’m just saying right now no one learns to speak another language in school. They learn them by putting themselves in situations where people speak them.

  3. Yes, it’s undeniable that ‘immersion’, jumping head-first into the wasser, eau, agua,, vodka (sorry, voda) is the most efficient motivator, if it’s practical.
    I must recount a little story: Having been taken out of the elem-schools at grade 2 and passed around through an impromptu procession of gifted-kid-teacher wanna-bes, it was decided to hand me
    full-time to a French visiting student pursuing her masters in, IDK, savants? She it was who taught me French, in her own odd-ball manner. But the scheme unraveled when her ‘pedophilia’ we call it these days, came to the attention of the Big Nurse.Hey, I was little and didn’t know any better. And also happy to learn the names of body parts rarely seen in public.
    So yeah, guess you could try that. Not

  4. As much as I loved my high school German class (I still keep in touch with my teacher, twelve years later), I just found the class unbearably easy. I like a challenge. I get bored. But perhaps I was only bored because I’d been immersed in German since I was small. My stepdad spent several years in Germany when he was still in the army, and he wasn’t exactly fluent but he knew enough to get by. Now that I think about it, I probably could’ve tested out of the class and graduated a year early instead of suffering through it for three years.

  5. I took 5 years of Spanish beginning in 8th grade and was quite fluent at the end. The kids who took comparable French, however, were far from fluent. I mocked them for the irrelevance of their language choice. Fast forward 7years after graduation, and I was the fool marrying into a French speaking family with a (quickly fading) knowledge of Spanish and zero French. The husband has not taught the kids French. Our daughter started full year French this year, in her 6th grade IB program. They also offer Spanish, and up until last year, Mandarin. There wasn’t enough interest in that one (??????) so they had to stop offering it.

  6. Pingback: Knowledge vs. Skills | Transvestite Rabbit

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