Column: Why Americans don’t learn languages

By Maria-Xenia Hardt

Daily Texan, U. Texas via UWIRE

Ten years ago, no one would have predicted that I would someday write for an English newspaper, get along in an English-speaking country or study English literature. As a German grammar school student, I was made to believe that English just wasn’t my language.

I am doing all those things I previously presumed impossible now because I found the motivation to learn English, spent long  hours working through grammar rules and vocabulary and worked as hard as I could when other people asked for a bit more than what I thought was capable of.

In America, being fluent in two or three languages is extraordinary. In Germany, it’s average. So what is it that American students lack? Do they lack motivation? Are they unwilling to do the hard work it takes to become fluent in a foreign language? Or is there just no one who pushes them?

Motivation to learn a foreign language is indeed higher in Germany — and in Europe in general — because large populations speaking different languages reside so much closer. Within a 12-hour drive from Germany you can easily pass through five or six countries and read road signs in seven or eight different languages — an experience difficult to replicate in North America.

But that’s not the only reason why Germans and Europeans learn more languages than their American counterparts. In German universities, unlike at UT, where even majors in popular languages like French start with a beginner course, students enter college-level language courses more or less fluent. They acquired their language skills in primary and secondary schools. Studying French at the college level in Germany means studying French linguistics or literature; it means gaining an understanding of the language and the culture that goes far beyond a fluent coffee shop conversation.

At university in Germany, the languages that are not taught in the earlier grades start with very tough introductory courses. Language courses are two hours a week, which is just enough to cover grammar topics. Learning vocabulary, practicing speech and writing are things you either do at home voluntarily or you don’t. Failing to do so, however, means that you won’t make it to the second year.

So the biggest difference between learning a foreign language in Germany and in the United States is not the level of motivation but the quality and style of teaching in grade school and at universities.

In Austin, I have taught German to pupils at a middle school and I have experienced language instruction at the University as a student. Both groups seemed motivated to learn a foreign language. At the elementary school where I taught, the nine- or ten- year-olds were at the perfect age to acquire a language. But the advantages of their age and their motivation were wasted because the teaching lasted only a week. Those students probably won’t hear or read any more German until college, if ever. And longer-term attempts to teach language in grade schools in the United States appear ineffective too. I’ve met many Americans here who studied French or Spanish for years in school but can now barely remember how to order a coffee. They readily admit that the language programs at their primary and secondary schools were ineffective.

Things seem a bit better at the university level. I’ve met quite a number of people who study a foreign language in college and, within two or three years, have gained a decent knowledge of that language. Unfortunately, I ended up in a less effective department.

I wanted to continue my study of Portuguese — a language that I had started to study in Germany — and the intermediate Portuguese class I am taking offered promise. It’s a small class with a motivated professor. When the semester began, most students were equipped with a sound knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, and I was quite optimistic that this course would help me improve. I was wrong.

Rather than moving on, the course repeated introductory grammar topics. We’re not improving; we’re just chewing on bits of knowledge most of us had already digested last year.

Learning a foreign language is hard work, and there are moments when I hated every language I’ve learned so far because I was afraid that I would never get it, or because I thought my head was too full to learn a single word more. But in these moments of self-doubt, I had teachers who said, “Yes, you’re good, but you can be better.” The Portuguese class doesn’t challenge like that. This is not the teacher’s fault, she just follows through with the curriculum the department has decided upon. It’s not the students’ fault either. It’s the fault of the department’s curriculum, which does not adequately challenge the students. UT’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese has good equipment and good teachers, but rather than asking that their students go the extra mile, which is necessary in order that they really make progress, they demand far too little.

Schools and universities that don’t make use of their students’ motivation waste their talent, time and so much potential. They miss out on equipping young people with the tools they need to successfully go out into the world, communicate, understand and come back with a broadened horizon. I entered the world of the English language a long time ago, and at some point I discovered the beauty of it. I am still walking around in it today and so far it has never ceased to amaze me.

Read more here: http://www.dailytexanonline.com/opinion/2012/11/26/why-americans-dont-learn-languages
Copyright 2014 Daily Texan

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