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Re-Thinking Foreign Language Studies in the U.S.

U.S. schools need to get better at foreign language studies.

Sure, you can find hundreds of online articles that say A) Americans are even worse at foreign languages than we realize or B) it’s not as bad as everyone says. Here’s the reality: When I run into someone from Germany, the Netherlands or Norway, they speak English that rivals many Americans. They speak their native language. They usually speak at least one other language with confidence and authority.

I speak Spanish like 3-year-old. I know a few phrases in Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. I can conjure a handful of words in Korean and Vietnamese. That’s it.

I think about this often. I ultimately come back to two key factors: American school start foreign language studies late, and they teach languages all wrong.

I think back to my Spanish classes, and I shake my head in wonder. What educator would consider them a good idea? Lists of vocabulary and endless conjugations … really? Did you grow up speaking your native language and thinking about whether you were using the past-plural-fermented-indicative-imperfect-accusative tense?

No. You learned by context, by doing.

To me, it’s obvious that context is the right way to approach foreign language studies.

A Worthy Idea in Foreign Language Studies

I’m not alone in this. There’s a new book out called The Farm to Table French Phrasebook; author Victoria Mas dishes out the proper phrases, plus slang that can help a visitor fit right in at the table (and yes, it’s available as an eBook). I think this is a super-smart concept. I’d compare it to teaching music theory by showing a student how to play a song … and then unraveling the theory behind the song as the student’s playing competency develops. They can start playing from Day One, and then the true knowledge comes from diving into how – and why – the chords and notes mesh so well.

Mas’ idea clicks with me. Why not gear foreign language studies toward the scenario a food lover is likely to encounter? I could see this turning into a series geared toward different countries … possibly even regions. And it could apply to just about any hobby … a wine or beer connoisseur’s language book. Maybe one for bicyclists. I see myriad possibilities.

And I think that’s a smart model for foreign language studies in the classroom, too. Why not aim the topics at situations we’re likely to encounter? I could see language teachers making lessons far more immersive by building them around a visit to the airport, getting around a museum, buying EuroRail passes, ordering food and other travel situations. Teach the handy phrases first … then deconstruct them for grammar and usage.

Groping for grammar is a poor use of up-front time in foreign language studies. Build confidence with helpful phrases first. Catch the conjugations another time. Get into the hardcore linguistic aspects as the student progresses.

What Can the U.S. Do Better?

I imagine there are plenty of other ways to catch up with the rest of the world in foreign language studies. But I am 100 percent certain that the United States won’t make any progress with the status quo.

And this should be a priority. Every one of us who is more conversant in a foreign language is more likely to travel abroad … and has a valuable tool in any business situation.

I also think we need to get beyond “practical” languages. My high school only offered Spanish, French and German … the obvious ones. I really wanted to learn Russian, but I settled for Spanish. I wasn’t genuinely interested, and it showed in my results.

What ideas do you have for a re-thinking of how American schools teach foreign languages? If you grew outside the United States, how did you learn your foreign languages?

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