Why American schools suck

Jenson Hagen

I've studied six languages in school.  I've gone to school at pretty much every level in Europe.  The language setting for my email is Swedish.  I get my nightly news online from France 3.  I get daily email news feeds from Der Spiegel.

We can't start kids off learning a language at 15 and expect any sort of fluency.  It has to happen as soon as the first grade.  We can't shove general math and English at kids and expect them to acquire a capacity for business, engineering or journalism.

We can't stay married to our system of education much longer.  It'll be a messy divorce, but it needs to happen.  Now more than ever.  We wholeheartedly ignore the European and Asian formats.  Maybe teachers, politicians and parent groups have some sort of disagreement.  Maybe they want rural control, small class sizes and yadda yadda, but when I go to rural China, I get by in Chinese.  I don't fear the future cause I can embrace it.

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That's one (pronounced e)

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That's two (pronounced r)

You can now count and read to two in Chinese.  Mach wieter Junge!

Comments

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    I share your enthusiasm for languages. I have always assumed that the lack of language instruction for young kids in the US has to do with the fact that the US is not only the "big kid on the block", but is simply very big and linguistically pretty homogeneous. It's a completely different story where you apparently sit in Europe, where even a fairly short trip is liable to land you in a completely different language environment. The typical American family's vacation, however, doesn't involve crossing language barriers.

    Let's also frankly note that if you've been studying in Europe "at pretty much every level" and travelling in rural China, you are living a life radically different than that of about 99.99% of Americans. I don't know you biographical details, so I have no idea if it's a matter of you being of European birth, or living abroad as a kid with your American family, or being an exchange student...the details hardly matter: you're pretty far from representative. I'm retroactively jealous as I struggle to learn foreign languages myself, but hey, I grew up in small towns and my family certainly couldn't afford either foreign travel or sending their kids away as exchange students. A week-long beach rental was about as exotic as things ever got for us.

    Nice attempt trying to use the Qwerty keyboard for writing Chinese characters. You'll be a bit more challenged with the characters for every number greater than three :-)

  • Steve Nelsen (unverified)
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    If it's good for the Teachers Union, then kids will get it, otherwise, forget it. It's all about the Teachers Union.

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    A timely post, Jason.

    We cannot let the let the lack of funding for public education stop needed changes in public education. We do need more public funding, but the lack of it should not be the excuse for no changes.

    Consider that the global banking firm Goldman Sachs estimated that by 2050 the combined emerging economies of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) could exceed the combined economies of the current richest countries of the world; and

    Consider that during the next thirty years, two to three billion people (out of a global population of 6.4 billion and growing) may join the global middle class, bringing substantial new buying power into the global market; and

    Consider that in the next few decades roughly 80% of the world's economic growth will be found in emerging markets; and

    Consider that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated (2008) that the economy of China will equal in size the US economy in 2035 and be twice as large in 2050.

    Consider that only about 1% of Oregon public school students now study Mandarin, that the current legislature had before it three proposals to expand Mandarin programs, and that all died in the House Education Committee. None of those Mandarin proposals had the support of the Governor, nor of the Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction, nor of the Oregon Education Association, nor of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, nor of the Oregon School Board Association, nor of the Oregon Business Council, nor of the Oregon Business Association.

    Consider also that three related bills to create a Go Global High School Study Abroad Program also died in House Education Committee. Such a program would not have required any additional state or local funding. It would have permitted (not mandated) local school districts to pay for high school students to study abroad. See here for background and here for the final draft proposal for HB 2719. None of the leaders or organizations listed above supported the proposals, nor did even one local school district.

    Where are our educational leaders who understand the future our next generations are going to live in?

  • Anon (unverified)
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    Obviously language instruction in American schools starts much too late and is laughably poor. Still, native English speakers can be forgiven somewhat, given that English still remains the global lingua franca. Chinese may have more native speakers, but it pales in comparison to English when it comes to those who speak it as a non-native tongue.

    Also, German and the Scandinavian languages are lovely and all, but most native speakers of those languages already speak excellent English. Spanish, Portuguese, and the more popular Asian languages should be the focus of American language instruction. German is great if you want to study philosophy, but if business competitiveness is your concern, it's superfluous. Also, Mark Twain was more or less correct...

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Then there is the problem of a failure to teach ethics in American schools which helps to explain why some of the "best and brightest" got us into the Vietnam quagmire and Iraq-nam, went on to make us the poster people for contempt for international and domestic laws, and have now gotten us into new potential disasters in Afghanist-nam and Pakist-nam.

    For more on this topic, check Chris Hedges at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081208_hedges_best_brightest/

    Back to languages: In the 1960s I gave two teenage Dutch students a ride to Hamburg. During the trip I learned that schools in the Netherlands taught their students two languages in addition to their native language. Perhaps, this attitude towards educating their youth helps to explain why the Dutch could build dikes that withstood generations of storms from the North Sea while our levees in New Orleans were a failure.

    One consolation for Americans is that we can boast of multi-million dollar sports stadiums, something you are not likely to find at European universities.

    This last point may help to explain "As Smash-and-Grab Capitalism Collapses, the French Economy Shines" also at Truthdig: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20090516_as_smash-and-grab_capitalism_collapses_the_french_economy_shines/.

    Not to mention that France was considered in the World Health Organization Year 2000 report to have the best health care system in the world.

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    Perhaps learning a language will not result in its subsequent application in everyday affairs, but the same could be said about history, algebra and Shakesperean plays.

    What we fundamentally ignore in this country is how the human brain operates. If you stimulate the Broca and Wernicke areas through one language, those areas adapt and become increasingly receptive to new languages.

    Yet we let those areas dwindle because we are not stimulating them at a young age. The reason why young children can learn languages faster and better is that a 2 year old has twice as many synaptic connections as an adult.

    The brain prunes connections is does not use, and we completely refrain from stimulating those areas until high school. Too late! They have already been pruned.

    I can learn a new language in nanoseconds compared to my American peers. Even at the age of 33 I can still learn a language faster than any 15 year old.

  • tl (in sw) (unverified)
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    I wholeheartedly agree that foreign language instruction should start much earlier in the US system. I would further argue that the value to US children learning a language other than English should not be linked to the sheer number of people in the world who speak that language. One learns so much about one's own language and culture by studying another. Even if you never travel to a country whose language you know, the process of learning that language broadens one's perspective as a member of a world inhabited by more than just US citizens.

    I respectfully disagree with Anon about the superfluousness of German for non-philosophy students. There is amazing poetry and literature, music, biology, history psychology, and economics to be appreciated in the native German. Also, English owes much to the German language particularly going back to Shakespeare's time. Also, if you wish to travel to middle and eastern Europe, many of the older folks there may know more German than English.

    Having lived and studied abroad, I would love to see a great expansion of foreign exchange programs for students. The US and the world would be a better place if every student spent at least 6 mos. in a country that spoke a different language.

    -tl

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    Great subject. Suck ass title.

  • Harry (unverified)
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    We can't stay married to our system of education much longer. It'll be a messy divorce, but it needs to happen. Now more than ever.

    Wow. Good Job, Jenson. Are you new here?

    I have never seen anybody disrobe the Emperor so clearly here before. Other places, yes. But never at BlueOregon.

    We wholeheartedly ignore the European and Asian formats. Maybe teachers, politicians and parent groups have some sort of disagreement.

    Uh, yeah, you could say there is ... um, a disagreement of sorts. Steve Nelsen nailed most of it: "If it's good for the Teachers Union, then kids will get it, otherwise, forget it. It's all about the Teachers Union." But there is more to the story.

    Maybe they want rural control, small class sizes and yadda yadda, but when I go to rural China, I get by in Chinese. I don't fear the future cause I can embrace it.

    Rural control (we call it local control) is part of it, yes. Better to have Portland determine the specifics of teaching PDX kids, than say Salem or WashingtonDC.

    But that is not the whole reason why we are at most bi- or maybe trilingual. There is a much more simple answer to this issue. But before I tell you what that is, I agree with you that most Euros (both Eastern and Western) are much more multi-lingual than us ignorant Americans. I was born here, but studied 3rd and 4th grades overseas, as well as my sophomore year in a Gymnasium. All my classmates were learning two "foreign" languages, plus the mandatory Russian (Soviet-block country), plus their native language. Quad-lingual, in grade school. They needed those languages since many would go to University out of state (so to speak).

    Americans are very insulated and isolated, by both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, and spoiled by the fact (mentioned above) that most other world citizens that we encounter in Europe or Asia (if we are lucky enough to cross the oceans) already speak English better than we speak their language.

    So, in a nutshell, we are lingua-ignorant because of geography as well as a status quo mentality of our union dominated educational system. If you could solve the latter problem, I will go out and get the dollars needed to build a NY to Paris enviro-eco-bridge (with HOV, light-rail and bike lanes) for the former problem. I bet I have a better chance on my easier task than you do!

  • mlw (unverified)
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    Eugene City Club Link

    Eugene City Club did a timely presentation on this very issue - how the US is committing economic suicide by progressively narrowing the public school curriculum.

  • mlw (unverified)
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    Links are apparently not working...here's the site - http://www.cityclubofeugene.org/calendar/2009_05_08.html

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    "One learns so much about one's own language and culture by studying another."

    Translating from a foreign languages to one's native language often reveals shortcomings in the latter and, hopefully, encourages necessary improvements.

  • murrayoperi (unverified)
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    Steve Nelson: I fail to see why the "Teachers' Union" would oppose increased language requirements? Or is it just opportunity for you to take a cheap shot at the teachers of this state? If anything, teachers' unions advocate for the expansion of the curriculum and educational opportunities for all students. I tell you what Steve Nelson, you appear to me to be envious of the teachers of this state and the largess that the Oregon taxpayers bestow upon them, so why don't you contact your local school district about shadowing a teacher for a week or two? One day won't do it. Spend a week or two with a local teacher and maybe even try to plan and execute a week's worth of lesson plans and deal with assessment and meetings during that week as well. I suggest you start with high school since you'd probably be more comfortable teaching in the subject area of your college degree. I am not joking. Call your school district to see if you can arrange a job shadow. Or better yet, approach one of your neighbors who is a school teacher about doing it. I bet one of your neighbors is a teacher who earns a salary and spends money in the Oregon economy and pays taxes to the state and federal government and doesn't have to rely on the Oregon Health plan because they have a job with good healthcare benefits and they are solidly middle class and own a home and have a solid credit rating and are not the teat sucking leeches that those on the right demonize them to be. I'm sure they can persuade their administrator to approve your visit. Try it. If you are so envious of the teacher lifestyle, I encourage you to get your license. Oregon needs more people who are so concerned about the education of young people. You'll fit in fine because not everyone in education is a rapid socialist who can't wait to indoctrinate young minds to godless atheistic materialism. Actually you will find a great number of teachers are relatively conservative, except when it comes to collective bargaining. So Steve Nelson, I hope you enjoy this experience. Do report back on your job shadow, please?

  • Lurline (unverified)
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    Nelson, though I agree wholeheartedly with you that Americans should learn more languages and have learned about the brain's relation to language study and other subject matter, I do not think that languages should be our starting place, given where schools are at today.

    Let's start with a next generation that is fluent in math. When we have mastered teaching numeracy, then we may have some time in the school day and professional development time to devote to teaching foreign languages. If Americans cannot understand math on a conceptual level, and cannot use it to their advantage in daily tasks, not to mention business, science and engineering, what jobs will we have in the increasingly global world where China and India produce genius engineers with American higher-degrees?

    -A language aficionada and teacher

  • Joe White (unverified)
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    Being able to say the same thing in multiple languages does not mean that one is well educated. I can use Babelfish for that.

    Actually when I saw the title, I thought the article might mention some of the more urgent problems in American schools, like sexual predators that are defended by the teachers unions.

    The big list: Female teachers with students Most comprehensive account on Internet of women predators on campus

    "Here is a list of the teacher 'sexpidemic' cases....where female teachers have been accused, or convicted, of assaulting students...."

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    People interested in this post might well want to read "Dumbing us down" and "Weapons of Mass Distraction," both by John Taylor Gatto, a NYC and NY State Teacher of the Year back in the late 20th C.

    Pretty searing indictments of mass-produced "education" on the Taylor (Frederick Taylor, industrial engineer) model, which is the model we're constantly told we need to keep applying harder and harder, as if kids had somehow become much stupider in the last 80 years.

  • rw (unverified)
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    Dear Jenson:

    I have always agreed. WHen I was a kid who innocently forced the hand of Elmira H.S., who refused accelerated learning for brighter students, only funding those needing the most help for basic benchmarks.

    And as a mother who will never forgive the BHSchools for their squander of parental passion and effort to get the right help when they are not getting it as a solo act.

    I agree so wholeheartedly with you Jenson, I'd contribute to your campaign. What's yer favorite charity? Do you drink coffee? I'll send you a Powell's card.

    ;)... thanks for a really good post. To the point.

  • mp97303 (unverified)
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    I agree with DH

    Fantastic post The title could have used some more thought though

  • Garrett (unverified)
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    Regardless of how I view the need of American schools to push foreign language this is one of the worst posts I've ever read here. It reminds me of the mindless gloss I see on Perez Hilton, but politicized. (yeah I look at Perez Hilton because I'm shallow inside)

    No but seriously...this reminds me of rants I've thought of when I was drunk.

  • Alex Case (unverified)
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    He seems to have picked up the Chinese way of writing editorials really well too- none of his arguments tie together, and there is no supporting evidence.

  • JulieJ (unverified)
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    "To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life". Our policy failures stem from an inability to imagine anyone else's life, and that failure stems from our lack of language training.

    As usual, though, it is hopeless, for us. We do not have parliamentary democracy, and it is not possible for people that do not have the education to spontaneously realize what they don't know, and want it, while being preached to by demigods.

    A majority of Americans still think the world's problems would be solved if more non-Americans understood us, not the other way around.

    As to the title...perhaps you're all missing a bit of clever tongue, placed firmly in the cheek. The subject is how Americans have no language skills. The title dramatizes the result, i.e., what Americans look like addressing big issues with tiny language skills. Education is a big issue. "Suck" doesn't do it justice, but it's all the average American could muster. Perhaps it was subliminal motivation. Which is another way of saying that I'm right, even if it wasn't done with that in mind.

    Is it my imaginagion, or did most the people that seem to know something, in spite, go to Catholic grade schools? It really shows that education is an absolute, even if it is force fed via violent trauma by an evil, life-sucking institution!

  • Some Pretentious GenX Male Name (unverified)
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    This is a good post. Unanimous sentiment and a grubby troll poked for good measure!

    If Americans had more language skills, maybe they wouldn't have to try inventing one when it comes to naming kids!

    You really have to wonder about a society where the average parent thinks more about the child's name than sending him/her off to Iraq.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    Jenson - Again, you've written some well-thought out ideas. Unfortunately, making any change in teh public education system is going to require some attitude adjusts on the part of govt and the public employees union. Of course, I weep for our youth.

    I mean what new innovation have we seen in public education in 10, 20, 30 years? We always get told schools are lousy because we never have enough money, yet private schools seem to turn out a better product at lower cost.

    Even when some attempt at something different like online education (via Oregon Connections Academy) happens, then the OEA gets the Legislature to find a way to shut it down.

    I think we are doomed to screw over the younger generations in society.

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)
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    One of the best ways to get more foreign language instruction would be for parents wise enough to want their children to have more foreign language instruction to have a full school choice program that allows them to use a voucher to send their child to such a school.

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    It's funny how people are getting hung up on the title. Yes, there is a method behind the madness. It's a reference to how we are more focused on Jerry Springer than we are Mark Twain.

    We are not being intellectually curious on this debate. Our ideas have been recycled over the last 40 years without any skepticism being administered.

  • Gregor (unverified)
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    Union busting can be fun, can't it? It's all about the unions preventing anyone from doing anything. Do you think the union would disagree with adding more union positions to the schools to teach these new languages? I don't.

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    Those of you thinking that it would be a major change to teach languages in schools don't seem to know that the change already happened years ago and it was to reduce the amount of foreign language education.

    When my father attended Gresham High School in the 1950s, he had to take Latin. In Eugene's District 4J in the late 1960s when I was a kid, Spanish was a requirement in elementary school.

    Budget cuts over the past 40 years are really what cut into language instruction, not some fantasy about the demands of public school teachers unions.

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    American schools do not "suck." There are challenges to be sure, but I know too many teachers who work very hard for me to agree with the theme of your post.

    As a person who came out of many American schools (and one Panamanian school), I had many wonderful experiences. I had the chance to learn French, German, Spanish and Russian. I only took Spanish. I did learn a tremendous amount about English. Side note: Paragraph three - "Now more than ever." I don't believe is a complete sentence.

    Someone made a proximity point earlier and I would concur. Our country is between a Spanish speaking country and an English and French speaking country. In the midst of Europe, it behooves students to learn multiple languages as they could be in another country in a matter of a few hours. It's practicality, not some sort of model of perfection. That is likely why schools close to the Mexican border offer more Spanish and schools up north offer more French.

    I also would like to add that not all of Europe has an idealized school model. Europe is an entire continent with several different countries that do different things. Country to country comparisons are more fair and accurate. We never offer North America up against England, do we?

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    You can't blame the schools for pervasive social attitudes. Yes, they teach languages earlier, better, and more aggressively in European schools. But this reflects their more open attitude toward multiple languages as much as it produces it.

    If you listen to the radio in Europe (or anywhere else outside of the U.S.) you hear songs in many languages. Other than Sting's duet with Algerian singer Cheb Mami on "Desert Rose," you'd have to go all the way back to Los Lobos' remake of "La Bamba" to find a non-English pop hit in the U.S. (And for the record, most Spanish-language radio in the U.S. has a provincial and insular format, too [when's the last time you heard salsa on a mariachi station?], but it at least has the excuse of serving various minority niche markets.)

    Face it--we don't teach foreign languages in schools for the same reason we don't listen to them on the radio or study them at the kitchen table: fear for the status of our native tongue(s) and neocolonial hubris (the same reason most Russians can't speak a word of any other language indigenous to their country and Chinese in Tibet don't learn Tibetan.) You can't blame the teacher's union for that (though I suspect someone will try.)

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    If the people who make up American society appreciated the importance of education they would ensure we had a good education system that would meet the needs of all citizens. That would lead to the education of good teachers who would be paid a wage that showed the respect they deserve. Then there would be less contention between teachers' unions and an ill-informed public. Today's teachers are a mixed bag, but for some people they are all losers, which is absolute nonsense.

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    Apparently No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--which teachers nearly universally OPPOSED--has led to a marked decrease in the teaching of foreign languages in public schools. This is from the American Teachers of Japanese association, 2005:

    "It is no longer anecdotal that more foreign languages are feeling the impact of NCLB, and Japanese is no exception. Programs, instructional time, and grade levels are being cut in many places across the nation. Under NCLB, Foreign Language is identified as a core subject at the Federal level. However, no national assessment is required, so districts and schools are focusing now on subjects that require assessment. We value what we assess, and we assess what we value."

    There you go--it ain't the teachers.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    @ Bill Bodden: It's interesting to question whether the constant focus on the quality of teachers isn't an attempt to fix blame a perceived decline in the quality of education that has more to do with clinging to an antiquated instructional model that determinedly prepares kids for a world that doesn't exist?

    As the child of a 30-year teacher, I've probably known more teachers well than most people do, and they are truly all over the map (kind of like students). And it's probably true that we (as a society) got an unintended benefit for decades from the discrimination that limited choices for women -- a lot of the cream went into teaching. Now these women, many of whom would have been teachers, are doctors, lawyers, and MBAs instead.

    But even with all that, contrary to the right-wing "great man" theory of education (that the quality of the teacher is everything), the effect of teacher quality is actually quite limited by the structures we force them into --- there are plenty of high-quality teachers in poor performing schools serving children from families where there are no books, few adult males, and little stability and few of the minor perks (like preventive care, food security, etc.) that make "education" so much easier in the 'burbs.

    The No Corporation Left Behind process has only aggravated things, totally negating the role of great teaching because the only teaching that counts is what can move up the numbers on standardized tests.

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    Just one more comment on language learning--education in most of Africa absolutely sucks. The wasted human potential there is immeasurable. But despite the crappy schools, you will almost never meet a monolingual African. IMHO schools have a role to educate, but cannot be expected to make up for every social ill, including cultural insularity.

  • andy (unverified)
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    It took me a while to figure it out but eventually I discovered that it isn't American schools that suck. It is actually American parents that are horrible at raising children.

    Go visit any class at any school in town and you'll find out that the best students come from homes where the parents are involved and engaged. The worst students come from homes where the parents are idiots or lazy or high all day or have some other serious social ill.

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    The other side of this discussion is that on top of teaching languages at a younger age, we also need to reevaluate what languages are being taught. The three languages which have far and away the biggest enrollments are Spanish, French, and German. Spanish obviously makes sense given our geographic location and our changing demographics domestically. It also is one of the most spoken languages in the world. But why are we still so focused on French and German? Mandarin is far and away the most spoken language in the world but it is only beginning to be taught here. Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Portugese, Bengali, and Japanese are all spoken more widely than French or German, and yet they are basically not offered in American schools.

    None of this is to say that we should ignore European languages. But simply put, they should not be the second and third most taught foreign languages in American schools. We have to change our priorities. Not only are the languages I mentioned more widely spoken, but they are also concentrated in areas that are increasingly important for political and economic reasons. If we are going to adequately prepare students for the future, they need to learn a more diverse set of languages than is currently taught.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    I think we need a bit more bashing of teachers' unions here, especially the teachers' unions in all those European countries where kids all start studying foreign languages in primary school. Maybe call those Eurotrash teachers "radical communistic socialist fascist atheists" or something equally intelligent from the wingnut lexicon.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    Nick Wirth: French is still extremely useful as a foreign language because it is spoken in so many places, commonly as a second language. Yes, this is largely a relic of colonialism, but not entirely. (The history of French as the (former) language of diplomacy, say, has nothing to do with colonialism.) You list a number of languages with more native speakers than French, but most of them are spoken only in a single country. The two obvious exceptions are Portuguese (for which Brazilians comprise the large majority of speakers) and Arabic (which is actually akin to "Chinese" in that it is really a family of "dialects" so diverse from one another that people from different "dialect" regions can barely understand each other.)

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    The ability to read French, German and Russian is extremely useful if you are doing research, especially at the graduate level. More is being published in Chinese but it lags way behind. Little research and few books are published in Arabic, though being able to read an Arabic newspaper is useful to a degree.

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    "We always get told schools are lousy because we never have enough money, yet private schools seem to turn out a better product at lower cost."

    That's because private schools can pick and choose who they want. The kids that are more expensive to teach don't go to private school, because they can't get in.

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    Joel: I recognize that French has it's uses having taking 5 years of it throughout school, versatility being one notable strength. And as I said, I don't mean to suggest that we should completely eliminate French in American schools. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that French receives more attention than is deserved in our education system.

    First, I don't necessarily think the geographical distribution of a language (ie how many countries it is spoken in) is the best gauge of how useful it is. Borders are often rather arbitrary. You have to look at the political and economic ties between the USA and those countries, and the reality is that Russia, India, Brazil, and Japan are all going to be more strategically important individually in the coming decades than Western Africa.

    In addition, while this is rather anecdotal evidence, French in my experience is commonly overstated in it's usefulness. I remember in all of my french textbooks Senegal is a sort of poster child for francophone Africa. Yet I have had friends study abroad there on french programs in Senegal that have to learn Wolof because very few average people there actually speak French. Granted that's only one country. The reality is that a number of African countries use French as an administrative language because of the vast numbers of local languages that are spoken. But in many of these countries it is only small percentages of the population, often upper class, that actually speak French. While the numbers add up across multiple countries, French is not all that useful in day-to-day life in many of these countries.

    As for Arabic, I was referring to Modern Standard Arabic, which is taught and understood throughout the Arabic world if rather formal for everyday use, where regional dialects come into play. People can then specialize in regions where necessary after studying MSA. But it's hardly an excuse to not teach Arabic in schools. It's more widely spoken than French, and I think it would behoove the USA to have a greater cultural understanding of the Arabic world.

    So like I said, French has it's place in our schools. I just don't think that place is in the top 3.

  • Miles (unverified)
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    I think the best point so far is that we should teach languages to enhance brain function. Most Americans won't ever travel to a non-English speaking country. Of those who do, very few will need to converse in a foreign language. Even in the business world, Engligh is king and while speaking a foreign language may give you a slight advantage, that's not a sufficient reason to radically change American education. (When I studied abroad I lamented to a student from Sweden that I wished I had learned more lanuages earlier in life. She seemed perplexed and said that as a native English speaker I already had a huge advantage globally. The reason every Swedish child learns English is that they're trying to catch up.)

    There's no real practical reason to teach a foreign language, no matter how many billions speak Mandarin or Indian or Spanish. But languages develop parts of the brain that otherwise atrophy, and that's why they're essential. Failure to expose your kids to foreign language is the same as failure to expose your kids to exercise, or nature, or art, or music. It should absolutely be in the schools, and it should be mandatory (and so should PE and music and arts).

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    "It took me a while to figure it out but eventually I discovered that it isn't American schools that suck. It is actually American parents that are horrible at raising children."

    Defective and dysfunctional parents are a factor but, unfortunately, not the only factor. Many others apply.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    andy sez: "It took me a while to figure it out but eventually I discovered that it isn't American schools that suck. It is actually American parents that are horrible at raising children."

    But of course andy's kids' parents are intuitive geniuses at child rearing, unlike the rest of us who have to figure it out as we go along. Thanks for clearing that up, andy.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    "That's because private schools can pick and choose who they want. The kids that are more expensive to teach don't go to private school, because they can't get in."

    Fine - Take the average Central Cath student vs. the avg PPS student in a SAT test. BTW - Cent Cath subsidizes a lot of students who can't afford it.

    My main point is, I'd love to stick up for the OEA and public schools, I am only asking for one major breakthru inthe past 30-40 years they intiated that improved the school system.

  • Peter Noordijk (unverified)
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    The European system is fine. If you don't flub the test(s) that place you in your track. Not so great at math in 6th grade? You can be a police officer or auto mechanic. Unless your parents are rich, then you can be whatever.

    When I am teaching, my European exchange students, while excellent at memorization, and often pretty good at English, they are challenged by using concepts on their feet, identifying problems and digging up new solutions.

    Many of my American students could use more preparation, but they make a lot with the material they know.

    When I'm teaching at Portland State, I am very aware that I have a class full of returning and non-traditional students who wouldn't have a home at a European University.

  • rw (unverified)
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    Let's hear it for defective and dysfunctional parents. I am one.

  • rw (unverified)
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    Andy: I do not believe you intend to be judgemental, but your language is so very laden with value! God help those of us parents who sucked as much as the unresponsive teachers did. The parents working a couple of jobs and no family members or tight friend network to pick up some slack, or get your back. Egad.

    Andy, I'm sure you did not really mean to lay values and judgements upon this discussion? Juuuust checkin'!

    Signed, dysfunctionational one-time mum :)

  • Joe White (unverified)
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    why are the moderators on Blue Oregon censoring the links to articles that I've posted?

    I thought liberals were all about free speech?

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    Peter,

    Have you ever graded a paper handed in by an incoming Freshman at PSU? On dirait horrible!

  • rlw (unverified)
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    Joe, your narcissistic victim complex has got you by the shorthairs. EVERYONE is having trouble posting links. Everyone. :)

  • Vincent (unverified)
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    The problem, of course, is not that children don't learn foreign languages. The problem is that they're coddled through a school system where anyone who shows even the tiniest modicum of effort "earns" a passing grade and graduates.

    The problem has spread to higher education, where massive enrollment has led to a precipitous decline in standards at the undergraduate level. In many cases, failing a student outright for anything less than plagiarism is discouraged, if not disallowed.

    To solve our education problems, students need to be allowed to fail and they need to learn that their precious self-esteem is not what matters -- it is their education that matters. Assuming personal responsibility for their choices and taking control of their own destiny -- instead of being hand-held through a Bachelor's Degree -- might be really hard for a lot of people, but in the end, it will result in students who either take an interest in learning, or fail and suffer the consequences.

    In any case, I don't quite understand the focus on polyglotism as anything more than Euro-envy. The simple fact of the matter is that for most Americans, knowing any languages besides English and Spanish is not a useful skill. It's all very well and good that people like Mr. Hagen have had the opportunities to learn several languages, but for most people, teaching people to learn Swedish, Chinese, Russian, or French is simply wasting time and money with little appreciable benefit.

    To put it another way, Europeans tend to be bi- or polylingual because it happens to be more necessary, not because it makes them smarter or more cultured.

    Judging people based on the number of languages they happen to speak is, to put it bluntly, extraordinarily shallow and snobbish. If you want a "better" school system, demand tougher standards -- and I'm not talking about standardized tests.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Over at Think Progress I just read of an air force fighter pilot on whom it was estimated $25 million had been spent on his training. http://thinkprogress.org/2009/05/20/pilot-dadt-discharge-obama/

    Yesterday, my dentist told me that dentists are commonly $400K in debt on graduation. How many dentists and doctors could have received free tuition if that $25 million for ONE pilot had been diverted to medical and dental schools?

    Presumably, if we consider all of the money spent to train American military personnel to kill and destroy we would be looking at tens of billions of dollars. Instead, we are looking at laying off teachers and cutting out several days from an already short school year.

    However, because the United States has become more like a mix of Alice's Wonderland and Orwell's Animal Farm it would be delusional for us to expect our government to reverse current policies for something sane. It would be equally delusional to expect a majority of the people to vote for a majority of sensible politicians.

  • Steve Buckstein (unverified)
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    darrelplant says “Budget cuts over the past 40 years are really what cut into language instruction, not some fantasy about the demands of public school teachers unions.”

    According to US Dept. of Education data, current expenditures per pupil in Oregon (adjusted for inflation) tripled from 1959 through 2005 (from $3,115 up to $9,371).

    $9,371 per pupil times 30 students per class equals $281,113, and that doesn’t include All Funds money for things like capital construction.

    So, if language instruction was cut, it sure doesn’t appear that lack of money was the reason.

    Source: Digest of Education Statistics

  • Steve Buckstein (unverified)
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    Realizing the problem posting links here, the source for my numbers in the comment above is at

    http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_a175.asp

  • rw (unverified)
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    I am thinking just now about my brother Brian, who died in a warbird airshow. He taught himself German one summer in ninth grade. Went on to learn every slavic-type language he could get his tongue around. Was one of six recruited to Monterey for SerboCroatian when we sent contract employees for the NSA to help Mr. WhatsisName tear down that wall.... my brother went to the same crappy schools that don't teach language when it should be taught. But somehow he decided to learn. And, one of four children of a single mother and no dad to care about how it went, he GOT his languages and went on to travel and write and analyze etc... so......... maybe we need to quit this crap, huh? Us kids are lazy a lot and the ethos of intellectualism is not particularly pure in most sectors of our culture. My Jewish darling sat in WW classes of over sixty. And he learned brilliantly. The ethos of pure learning was what did it; not the sloppy bourgeous lust for better-than and the slippery slide to THINGS via mastery of information.

    I submit that our kids are drowning in the attrition of poor lesson planning (my son was given the same hackneyed readings or assignments year after year!), bureaucratic paper chase (gotta show them little packets of NCLB!), and a lack of pure passion for erudition, for concepting, for the love of it.

    The geeky, pash and love of it.

  • Ian (unverified)
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    "If the King's English is good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas!" - Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, TX, circa 1930, explaining why Spanish shouldn't be taught in Texas schools.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Torrid Joe:

    That's because private schools can pick and choose who they want. The kids that are more expensive to teach don't go to private school, because they can't get in.

    Bob T:

    Yeah, I've heard that one for many years. Does this mean that in a town with no kids needing special attention, that all students will pass with high grades, and at lower cost. Nonsense.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • Assegai Up Jacksey (unverified)
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    Yes, I would agree with Jamais that you could leave the letters "school" out of the title. It is a disgrace that you have to get a permit to take a crap, but you can breed and breed and home school them in any BS...and then it's up to society to handle the results.

    I would do 100% what the post suggests, too. That said, I have to play devil's advocate with the Europeans that have said that it ain't all roses. The Brits bother me on this note. Their A levels and revisions are far superior to our colleges and universities. They retain a lot and are, to a person, much, much better educated. Many times I've worked right along side them. Sometimes here, sometimes there. If you discount witty talk at the pub, though, I have never once seen a case where it made a day on day difference!

    That's the devil in the details. It doesn't matter, because the US form-over-substance business model has gone global. If THAT determines success, then we ARE well educated. If education is about preparing for life, and that life is screwed, it requires a screwed education, no?

  • Dustin (unverified)
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    I'd just like to chime in with the perspective from Canada. In the Canadian education system, students begin learning French anywhere from Grade 1 to Grade 4, and study it up to Grade 9.

    There are French Immersion Schools for each level of Education (Primary and Secondary) as well as Post-Secondary Universities and campuses that instruct primarily in French.

    In addition, all graduates of the Royal Military College (our Military Academy) are required to learn French, as are Politicians inside the Province of Quebec.

    And yet, our French penetration is low at best. For the schools who teach from Grade 1, they simply integrate it into the curriculum. If you're learning about shapes in class, you'll be learning the French words for circle and square, and so on.

    I think a big portion of it has to do with the mental picture of the students, and what they can do. China knows they need English. But do English-speakers think they need French, or any other language for that matter?

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    Well, Steve, you've got me. I guess educational programs haven't been cut due to budgets and that the teachers demanded the shutdown of language programs after all.

    <h2>Presumably, in addition to all of the language classes, the music, sports, and other programs that I'd heard had been suffering over the past decades are also all still running strong. You've convinced me. I'll never vote for another school bond again.</h2>

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