KINDERGARTEN POLYGLOTS.

A NY Times story by Joseph Berger (print version) is the first thing in a while that’s given me a bit of hope about the American educational system:

Seven-year-old Cooper Van Der Meer is learning Spanish as a second language.
That’s right. This American native is lucky enough to be in a school system that considers the acquisition of languages so important in today’s polyglot, globally entwined America that students start learning a foreign language in kindergarten…
Martha Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said that while there is no reliable data on the trend, her organization keeps learning of more school systems that think paying for elementary school language teachers is money well invested.
Since September 2006, all students in grades one through five in Loudon County, Va., have been given 30 to 60 minutes of Spanish instruction each week. Last year, officials in Fairfax County, Va. — which, with 165,439 students, is the nation’s 13th-largest school system — decided to expand the study of foreign languages to all 137 elementary schools over a seven-year period. Twenty-five Fairfax schools provide 30-minute lessons twice a week in Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese or French starting in the first grade. Ten schools have ambitious “immersion” programs where math, science and health are taught in a foreign language.
Paula Patrick, the Fairfax system’s foreign language coordinator, said Americans have for too long had a “mind-set that everyone else in the world could learn English.” Her district is receiving appeals from businesses that need global-ready travelers and from a health care industry that needs translators.
The growth in language instruction is also taking place in college. A survey by the Modern Language Association released yesterday found a 13 percent increase in language-course enrollments between 2002 and 2006, with a 127 percent increase in the number of students taking Arabic.

Now if they’d just start teaching the basics of linguistics in elementary school (language changes and that’s OK, different people talk differently and that’s OK, grammar is part of how you speak and not something an authority imposes on you…) I’d be a happy man. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. I love how the kid puts it: “If there’s a Spanish person in the store, I’ll probably translate that guy.”

  2. From earth to heaven, no doubt.

  3. While I was at university, I had a work study at a nearby elementary school that has an immersion program. The kindergarten kids I worked with spoke better Japanese than most of the students in my college Japanese classes.

  4. Portland OR has several full-time immersion schools: French (private), Spanish, Japanese, and maybe Chinese (all public). There is also a German / English school (private) up until 5th grade. These schools are all highly respected locally and draw students from families of all language backgrounds.

  5. It’s LOUDOUN County. Boo, NYT!

  6. mollymooly says:

    Funny how an hour of compulsory Irish every day from age 4 to 17 doesn’t have much effect on the average Irish person’s fluency. This is partly because in primary school, Irish is taught by the same teacher who teaches everything else to the class, who effectively studied it as a minor component of their B.Ed. Hence you’re learning broken Irish to begin with. How fluent are the US language teachers?
    Of course there are other factors militating against Irish: learning that Irish Is Not Cool is part of growing up, like learning the F-word. However, the total-immersion gaelscoil is increasingly popular (with parents) though even there most teachers are not native-speakers. Fluency in Irish is now the mark of a nice middle-class upbringing, like playing the cello; the masses don’t give a toss.

  7. michael farris says:

    mollymooly, that’s of sad in a way, I’ll bet the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Ireland over the last however many years (and sure to increase over time) care even less for Irish than the Irish do (if possible) and will fiercely resist having their children spend time on it in school.

  8. michael farris says:

    mollymooly, that’s of sad in a way, I’ll bet the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Ireland over the last however many years (and sure to increase over time) care even less for Irish than the Irish do (if possible) and will fiercely resist having their children spend time on it in school.

  9. Mollymooly, that makes me think of Flann O’Brien’s satire on the middle-class Gaelicists in “The Poor Mouth”. Apparently they got hold of the educational system, and the Anglophone Irish couldn’t care less.

  10. John Emerson, Portland also has comprehensive and useful public transport and strong land-use policies. It’s a little exclave of one of the saner countries of Western Europe, a long way from home.
    mollymooly, the same question of teacher quality arises with the Danes and Dutch learning English in school, but that hasn’t hindered them.
    Michael Farris, I wouldn’t be surprised if the immigrants work out what many of the locals have; that sending your kids to Gaelscoil is a very middle-class thing to do, so if you do so your kid will be disproportionately surrounded by others whose parents motivate them to study hard, and better exam results are likely to follow.

  11. mollymooly says:

    Re: immigrants and Irish: a (perhaps unlikely) Worst Case Scenario is that xenophobe Nativists adopt Irish as a symbol of Celtic Purity. But maybe some immigrant children will relish the opportunity for embracing their new homeland that speaking its language affords. Factoid: Irish-language Radio na Life has Spanish and Dutch presenters, whose accents are better than many of the Dublin presenters’.
    Aidan Kehoe: I think the huge supplement of subtitled anglophone TV and film may help the Danes and Dutch.
    Ireland’s Irish-language TV channel only started in 1996. I’m heartened by its sensible and inexpensive dubbing of imported cartoons and voiceover-documentaries; but otherwise it’s (a) European soccer [with Irish commentary, to be fair] (b) European “art” (cough) movies [in French/Swedish/etc with *English* subtitles] (c) talk-shows where many of the talkers are anglophones doing their best to keep up. In school, the approved strategy was, “if you don’t know the Irish word, use the English word and keep going”; that’s fine if it’s 9-year-olds talking about farm animals, but disheartening if it’s politicos talking about farm subsidies.
    In summary: if you want to learn Irish, you have to work hard to fine someone fluent enough to learn it from. Otherwise it’s like learning football from your dad: better than learning from a book, but you’ll never get much good.

  12. There’s an interesting analogy in Quebec, where (I think) children go to French-language school unless their parents are from another part of Canada. So it’s immigrant children, not Canadian children, who are more likely to speak the language that is in the minority nationally, but recently more prestigious.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Meesher: There’s an interesting analogy in Quebec, where (I think) children go to French-language school unless their parents are from another part of Canada and were schooled in English. There are French speakers in most parts of Canada, although they are more and more in the minority as one goes West and they have not all had the opportunity of being educated in French.
    The situation is not the same as in Ireland, where Gaelic as a first language is restricted to a small, remote area with a rural lifestyle. In Québec, French is spoken by several million people from all walks of life.
    So it’s immigrant children, not Canadian children, who are more likely to speak the language that is in the minority nationally, but recently more prestigious.
    You mean not English-Canadian children. The French-Canadian children in Québec are not less likely than the immigrant children to speak French, since French is their first language. Many immigrants to Québec also come from French-speaking countries or at least countries where French has official status (such as Haiti and many African countries) or is culturally very influential (such as Lebanon or North Africa), so that those people have been fully or partially schooled in French.
    In the rest of Canada many English-speaking children (and some immigrant children from various other countries) are enrolled in French immersion programs where all subjects are taught in French. The results, however, are not quite what was expected.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Factoid: Irish-language Radio na Life has Spanish and Dutch presenters, whose accents are better than many of the Dublin presenters’.

    Doesn’t surprise me too much. The English vowel system is unlike anything between England and China. Irish also doesn’t aspirate as much as English, does it?

  15. Is there any data to support the notion that Gaelscoileanna are a purely middle-class phenomenon?
    As regards “fluent” teachers, near-native speakers of Irish appear to outnumber native speakers suggesting that good teachers are either available or dispensible.
    And mention of Flann O’Brien (the excellence of whose Irish is not in doubt) calls to mind another significant category: the ‘native speaker’ brought up in Irish in a non-Irish-speaking area by parents who are not themselves native speakers.

  16. One of the best decisions we’ve made so far in raising our daughter (who will be 4 soon, God willing) is something we hit upon completely by accident: sending her to the Chinese-language day care down the street here on the Lower East Side/Loisaida/Chinatown. It’s a lovely combination of a school for the children of Chinese immigrants and for children of those who, for whatever reason, are interested in Chinese – or just those who need a good day care with good hours.
    Plus I get to practice my Mandarin on people other than visitors to the hospitals and medicine clinics I work in. And I get to revel in the strangeness of my Yiddish-, English-, and Mandarin-speaking daughter.
    (My frustrated-but-admiring wife to our daughter one bathtime: “I’m going to tell you one last time. I don’t understand as much Chinese as you do!”)

  17. Curiously, two weeks before this NY Times story, there was a story in the British media (and elsewhere) about the ten year old Arpan Sharma who claims he can speak 11 langauges. See for example on BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/7069216.stm. He knows some of these languages “only sketchily” (according to his school’s deputy head), but it’s still impressive.

  18. mollymooly writes: How fluent are the US language teachers?
    I have no actual facts about this, but I would guess that the NYC and Washington DC area schools mentioned in the article would be able to find native speakers to teach their language classes. Parts of the US with less international populations might have trouble finding native speakers of anything other than Spanish.

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