Saturday, May 28, 2011

foreign language in elementary school

The HC school board is currently considering a proposal to pilot a foreign language program at the elementary school level. The idea is to integrate the use of computer technology into regular classroom instruction and eliminate the hour-long segment that they spend each week in a separate computer lab. (I guess they would still potentially use the lab space, but it would be with their homeroom teacher, and it would relate directly to whatever they're working on in class anyway.) This would free up two half-hour time slots each week for language instruction, which would be undertaken according to a content-based approach. The language instructor would work with the students on content they're expected to learn anyway--science, social studies, etc.--but conduct the class in a high percentage of the foreign language, so they get exposed to its various elements. Obviously, the emphasis would be on vocabulary and situational dialog; there would be little technical discussion of the grammar and structure of the language. The proposal is to teach all students in all schools Mandarin Chinese, but they estimate that they could offer two language options for about 10% more cost.

I have no objection to them studying a foreign language, and I'm reasonably sure the integrated approach to technology could work, though I'm not at all certain that it will. I guess my main question relates to the language selection. Now, I'll readily admit that as someone who has studied several different languages, I'm probably biased by not being personally interested in Chinese. I understand why it was chosen--the number of people in the world who speak the language, the role of China in the world economy, and the length of time and effort required to achieve some level of fluency (which makes it more beneficial to get an early start)--but I still think an argument can be made against it.

It's certainly sensible to learn the language of our new overlords. China produces the goods we buy, and loans us the money to buy them. When our politicians bicker us into default, it is China that will be first in line to repossess our country. History is filled with examples of major powers whose languages became the common currency of trade and government--Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc. English is one of the more recent examples, but we're probably not far from the time when the sun really will set on the British/American Empire. China is a logical choice for the next big thing.

But I wonder if it isn't morally superior to change tactic, especially if we're not quite ready to admit defeat on the world stage, and instead reach out to those who live within our borders in ever-increasing numbers and will likely surpass English-speakers in the overall population. I'm talking about the Hispanic population, with whom we share this half of the world, and many of whom have one way or another made their way to the United States. Learning the language of those who are powerful, because we must, is one thing; but learning the language of those who are not, because we can, is something altogether different.

I also wonder if we aren't missing an important aspect of language learning. It used to be standard to learn Latin, not so much because of all the Latin-speakers out there with whom we could converse, but because of what it teaches us about our own language. I'm not so naive as to think that we'd return to that any time soon, but doesn't this other purpose of learning a foreign language apply to some degree when we learn any other language? It helps us to think about similarities and differences, and with good instruction, we can understand how those connections arise. But the further two languages are removed from one another, the harder it can be to find informative connections. Especially when we're talking about language taught at the elementary school level, they probably won't draw many conclusions about grammatical structure by experiencing two languages. But cognate words are much easier to discover and can be very useful in building vocabulary in one's own native language. It seems to me that students would gain more insight about English by learning one of its closer relatives.

The point about needing more time to learn Chinese was one I didn't think of until it was specifically brought up in discussion. There is a great deal of sense to it, but I wonder how realistic it is. A lot of the point of how this program is designed is to make it something that will work for all students. But do we seriously think that all, or even most, students will continue their study of Chinese once they have other options? And don't the same factors that make it a longer enterprise to learn Chinese also make it that much easier to lose in a summer what they've learned during the school year? How much benefit will they retain over time?

Consider writing, for instance. I don't know if there is any intention to teach Chinese writing--I would assume there would be, but maybe it's considered too complex to bother with. Either way--if they don't cover writing, students have missed an area of learning; if they do, the struggle will be long and hard, and most of them will probably forget everything they ever learned. On the other hand, a language like Arabic would also take substantial time to learn, would have quite a bit of relevance in today's world, and would challenge students with its writing system. But here, "challenging" does not mean "inaccessible." Arabic writing is difficult, but it is still an alphabetic system (technically, it's an abjad, but I'm trying not to be technical) and therefore involves a relatively small set of characters. Even if some information is lost over the summer, the task of reviewing and re-learning at the beginning of the next year is much smaller. But if we're talking about a language program for all students, it's probably better to go with something that uses the same basic Latin characters students are already familiar with.

I also like the argument that teaching English-speaking students Spanish will help them interact with their fellow students whose first language is Spanish. If it is true that Spanish-speakers typically have more difficulty adjusting to American schools than other immigrant groups, anything we can do to help bridge this gap and make the transition easier will likely save the schools money they might otherwise spend on special assistance programs.

For these reasons, I think Spanish is the better way to go. I say this as someone who has never formally studied Spanish, who doesn't speak Spanish, and who has no Hispanic heritage. But if we're going to teach one foreign language in all elementary schools, I think Spanish wins as the most useful and attainable option.

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