What’s in a Language?

spanish.jpgOver at the Glom, I posted on the possible acquisition of Univision Communications, which owns Univision, the Spanish-language channel. This topic got me thinking about the relative utility of learning various foreign languages. Being from Houston, I would have to say that the single most important language in the U.S. is Spanish. (For example, in the market for childcare, non-Spanish speaking buyers are at a definite disadvantage. I’m not saying this to be silly or rude. I’m saying it because it’s true.) I never understood why Texas public schools do not require the teaching of Spanish from first grade forward. I know, people in the U.S. tend to think that English is the only necessary language, unlike natives of other countries who learn multiple languages. However, even when Americans believe in learning languages, we tend not to be very practical.

Our public elementary school in Whitefish Bay teaches a foreign language beginning in first grade. I think this is wonderful. However, the language is French. I know, I know, a lot of people have learned French in school. But, other than maybe conversing with someone on your one trip to Paris and learning to speak in “this outrageous accent” a la Monty Python, what good is it doing you now? If we were staying here, we would be making a very big push to change this to Spanish or something else useful. We are now looking at two elementary schools in Champaign. They both teach Spanish and Chinese. These choices seem very smart to me. I took Latin in school, and even though I’ve never been able to use it in conversation, I think it was helpful as a building block language. The whole SAT thing and all. But I can’t vote for French. Hebrew, Sanskrit, any of these are fine. But not French.

So, what language do Co-op readers think should be taught in elementary schools (if any)?

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9 Responses

  1. KipEsquire says:

    Maybe whatever the parents want taught? Or maybe the taxpayers who fund the schools?

    Oh, sorry, those weren’t options. Silly me.

  2. John Armstrong says:

    What good is French doing me now? Well, along with my choice of German or Russian, being able to read it was part of my qualifying exams towards a mathematics Ph.D. I read a fair number of research papers in French, watch foreign films (Leconte and Jeunet are superior to Amenábar, imho), go through the occasional work of literature (Un long dimanche de fiançailles, À la recherce du temps perdus…), and when I travel to conferences in western or central Europe it’s a very good backup in case English isn’t a lingua franca.

    Sure, polyglot kids are a great idea, but there should be a choice of languages, and French should definitely be among them.

  3. Dave! says:

    Tread lightly, for you risk the ire of the Bloc Québécois!!

    Actually, I think French is a fine language. I would agree that Spanish and Chinese have a certain practical element, but I think exposure to even a dead language like French is a good thing. 😉

  4. Simon says:

    Isn’t there a reasonable concern that before we ask this question, we should establish that English is being taught fully and correctly in schools, particularly in states where immigration is a problem: primarily California and Texas? I read a piece recently which suggested that in some school districts where the population is over 70% hispanic, lessons are being taught in Spanish. Well, that’s bad enough for the 70% (who you’d think would be better-served by not being hindered and pandered to and being expected to learn English as they’re goin to need to anyway), but worse yet for the 25% of blacks and 5% of whites who don’t speak Spanish, and are probably feeling pretty alienated from the process at this point.

    Learning another language is a nice touch, but it’s surely of only secondary value in a society which seems almost afraid to integrate, and in which even many native English speakers seem to have only a functional grasp of the national language.

  5. LT says:

    I doubt that anyone would dispute Simon’s understandable concern for the teaching of English in public schools. Teacher friends in certain districts have told me that they are flatly prohibited from teaching formal grammatical rules–one of the primary means by which I managed to grasp the basics of reading and writing in English.

    Nevertheless, studies clearly show that, when it comes to teaching children a second language, the earlier, the better. I began studying foreign languages in sixth grade and managed to get pretty darn good at one while living and working abroad. But friends and colleagues who had had a temporal head start–even by a year or two–absorbed new information and new rules so much faster than I could.

    Kids are sponges when it comes to languages. For that reason, it is fully possible to teach foreign languages alongside the basics of English in elementary school.

    As for which language to teach, Spanish is the most practical, but French is still an excellent entry point to the rest of the romance languages.

  6. Garrett says:

    I agree that languages should be taught starting at a very young age. I also agree that Spanish is far more useful in America than French. I frequently use Spanish when conversing with people who work at grocery stores, Walmart’s, and other stores who don’t understand what I’m looking for. When I speak to them in Spanish, their face lights up and they are eager to help.

  7. Cathy says:

    No, no… French is good! Don’t make your kids have to find it out the hard way like I did!

    When I was a kid I wanted nothing to do with French. I thought it, and everything French, was pompous, snobby, overly-proper… I wanted nothing to do with it. So when they offered us a foreign language in 7th grade, I took Latin instead. I can hardly remember what I was thinking when I made THAT pragmatic choice…

    In high school I was able to switch to Spanish but my teachers, in one of the Great Pedagological Travesties ever, continually warned us not to try to express ourselves with our new words. “Don’t try to speak! You don’t know the grammar and you’re going to get it wrong!” Worst. Advice. Ever…

    Anyway, I stuck with it for several years, but because I was discouraged from speaking I never developed the confidence necessary to let the language come alive for me. It ended up as useful to me as Latin was.

    Then in my junior year of college I finally set foot in France for the very first time. And loved it. So in my last year of college I made sure to take it. Which made it possible so that three years later I could move to France to live and work.

    The result is that French is the best langauge I can speak (apart from English) and I’m glad that I do. (To say nothing of being tremendously proud of myself, since I didn’t even start learning it until I was a 21 year old adult). True, only 2% of the world’s population (IIRC) speaks French. But it’s a population I continually encounter. It’s useful language in Europe, it’s useful in Africa, and it’s useful to some extent in southeast Asia. It’s also useful to help understand and speak better English, and it’s useful as a launching pad for learning other languages. It doesn’t even have to be a romantic language. Once you learn one language – meaning once you *learn how to learn* one language – the rest come much easier.

  8. meep says:


    After Latin, Spanish and French are really easy.

  9. Wild Pegasus says:

    The Renaissance had it right: the languages to study are Latin and Greek. If you look to direct utility, Greek and Latin are the backbone of formal English. Studying them unlocks the door to the jargon of industry and humanities alike. Moreover, most other European languages have borrowed Latin and Greek terms for jargon, and so every other language starts to look a little more familiar. Latin also fathered French, Occitan, Castillian, Portuguese, Walloon, Norman, Romanian, Romance, Galician, Italian, Aragonese and Sicilian. And that doesn’t count the local dialects of each. Each of them makes more sense when Latin is understood (although I can tell you that French and Latin are pretty different).

    In a more abstract sense, Western Civilisation is founded on philosophical works in Latin and Greek. Although they can be read in translation, learning the languages involves you in the works themselves (Greek is usually taught by reading Xenophon or Homer first; Latin is Ovid, IIRC).

    Teach Latin and Greek.

    – Josh