Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Zhongwen: Language of the Future
The BBC reports here that Brighton College, an independent college, (otherwise known in the US as a senior high school,) in Britain, has added Chinese to its required foreign language curriculum. It joins French, Spanish, and Latin.

Given the recent craze in the US and other parts of the Western world for all news of China, receiving it either joyously or with paranoia, this addition isn't that surprising. The thing I found more interesting was the idea that it is being instituted as a compulsory subject. I'm actually rather torn on my opinion of this.

On the one hand, it has not been my experience that compulsory foreign language education does much to produce happy, excited users of the target language. Very, very few of my students in Japan are ever going to become proficient English speakers, and not many of them seemed to think there was any use in taking the class, except that they were required to pass exams in it. Compulsory classes in a foreign language seem increasingly less likely to take situations where the target language is unlikely to come in useful on a realistically frequent basis. Teaching other European languages in England, other Asian languages in Japan, sure, these might be actually useful, but there's a reason only a few students in the US choose to take Japanese or Chinese.

On the other hand, look at the general American public. As a country, we are woefully ignorant of language. We have little knowledge of our own language, because we just grow up speaking it, and grammar isn't really a priority in the schools anymore. We also have little understanding of language in general, because foreign languages aren't a big priority either. After all, how often are we going to travel outside the US? And if we do, how often are people not going to understand English, especially if we speak real loud? Seriously, though, it's sad how many people finally learn the structure of English by taking a foreign language class and having to relate Spanish/French/German grammar back to English. Even if we didn't end up with a bunch of proficient Chinese speakers, who is to say that a little forced familiarity with a language from the other side of the world wouldn't prove to be useful?

My students in Japan, and later in the US, were envious of the US policy of letting students choose what foreign language they wanted to learn. In my own foreign language classes in middle and high school, the classes seemed to move at a faster pace, because the students were at least somewhat motivated by interest in the subject. But these foreign language classes are looked on as an academic luxury, not of core importance. Would it be better to sacrifice enjoyment and choice for broader, enforced foreign language education that might encourage more international understanding? I can't decide.

(But if I was going to design a foreign language overview curriculum for the US, I'd try to cover more language families than usual. I'm envisioning something like a choice between Spanish or French for Romance, German, Russian, a choice between Chinese and Japanese [even though I know they're not linguistically related, except by writing style], Arabic, and something Native American. This is completely unrealistic, it leaves out lots of languages, but maybe it could be squeezed in, say, with a month for each language, or something? Then the next year make the students pick the language(s) they'd like to study further. Oh, and a basic linguistics class at the high school level, too. Yeah, right.)

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