American Education Miscommunication: ESL and Foreign Language Instruction FAIL

Navy Heritage Language program “To meet the increasing demands of the Navy’s expanding missions around the globe, the Navy Heritage Language Program seeks to identify and reward individuals with varying degrees of fluency in specific languages. The ability to speak and translate as well as apply relevant cultural insights can lead to responsibilities, incentives and training above and beyond what a typical Navy career provides.”

Fine words indeed, but the Navy put some real world incentives behind the rhetoric: “Qualified candidates can get an initial bonus of up to $10,000 upon being accepted into the program. Receive up to $400 in extra monthly pay for each language.

$400 extra a month? Just for being able to do one’s normal duties in another language? Let’s take a look at what the Navy is interested in:  Arabic, Baluchi, Chechen, Hindi, Indonesian, Kurdish, Malay, Pashtu, Persian Arabic, Punjabi, Somali, Swahili, Tamil, Tauseg/Moro, Urdu.   They’ll pay for others, too.   Sweet!

Just reading the list of exotic and international languages is enough to excite many a young man and woman to sit up. Punjab? The language of the Sikh warrior caste of India? Malay, the far East island world of jungles and tropical beaches? Swahili, the coastal trading Arabic-derived language of the Omani dhow trade routes, the language that gave the world “on safari?” The Navy, indeed all the other branches of the United States Military will PAY for that? What would a 20 year-old guy pay to have “Tuareg” on his resume, the tongue of the turban-wrapped, nomadic “Blue Men” of the Sahara? How cool is that?

Well, how is the American Public and Private Education system addressing this need?

The American public education system seems to be in a race to see how many schools can phase out the old foreign language staples of French and German for Spanish, and with that Spanish taught in many schools not by qualified Spanish teachers, but by computer programs like “Rosetta Stone.”

One Arizona school intoned that French was passé, so they were dropping it while they contemplated picking up Chinese to replace it. Which was never going to happen as they were suggesting replacing a pretty standard language with a shared alphabet that they had trouble teaching competently, with a different language  that was hard to find in the USA and which required years of arduous study to be able to read and write, thanks to its lack of alphabet.

Spanish, we were assured, was necessary now in the United States, which should have then been justification for better instruction in it, not reliance on computers. One doesn’t go to Mexico City to talk Spanish to an ATM machine, which is about all one would be qualified to speak to.

But Americans travel all over the globe. They need languages that many people don’t even know exist.  Our schools, in pace with their fail to teach math, science, history and English, each year fall behind some more in teaching foreign languages.

A Spanish exchange student here in Arizona last week leaned over next to a classmate and pointed out, “Ah, your name has an accent there, you know.”
The student, of Mexican heritage, and Hispanic, was surprised, “It does?”
The Spanish student was shocked, “These so-called Hispanic kids can’t even read or write Spanish!  That guy didn’t even know how to write his own name properly!”

We encountered this same problem with our own kids as foreign students in French schools. They spoke English perfectly, with American accents, and French perfectly with French accents, but when they opened their American textbooks, they couldn’t understand them and couldn’t write in English to save their lives. It took years of deliberate and organized efforts to make sure they became competent in their mother tongue of English – paired with a year of accepting initially poor grades without panicking as the kids struggled to catch up to their Anglophone classmates.

Language competency goes beyond just conversation; it requires years of systematic vocabulary building, grammar, spelling, and composition training. The example of a Belgium family we knew personally in Ivory Coast who’d put their kids in French schools for years and then sent their oldest to Belgium to take his final exam – the Baccalaureate – in anticipation of college, was a lesson to heed. The family was from Belgium, a tiny country with two languages, French and Flemish. The boy had gone through his school years in French, but his Flemish-speaking parents blithely sent him to take the Flemish Baccalaureate. Even though he spoke fluent Flemish, he failed his Flemish BAC. He’d never learned to read or write his first language, and because of the rigidity of the European university entrance process, this unexpected fail had put his entire college and career plans in jeopardy.

The fail of language study in this country is pervasive. Anglophone Americans find grammar “hard” and spelling is not a skill, but a computer function. Exams are multiple-choice, built for ease of grading for the teacher, not for the students’ need for regular sentence or paragraph-writing discipline. Reading, crippled by the cumbersome word memorization of “Whole Language” instruction becomes an unpleasant and unproductive chore as students quickly find it impossible to memorize every word in the unabridged dictionary in order to be able to tackle comprehending even fifth grade textbooks.

Hispanic students languish in American public schools with second-rate speaking skills, and no proper training in reading and writing, setting them far behind their peers out of Mexican schools who must read, write and spell Spanish on a daily basis – in literature, in math, in science, in history classes. Few schools offer ESL courses for Hispanic students; designed to improve their spelling, grammar and composition n English, and the foreign language Spanish classes are not designed to make students competent in basic written tasks. Our children benefitted immensely through the French school FLE programs – French as a Foreign Language – designed to get non-Francophone students up to speed to be able to achieve in their regular classroom work.

Our kids have noticed the tendency for Hispanic kids to take Spanish as their foreign language – and snort. They take German, Spanish, and Japanese in addition to their French. This year, one of our students picked up Spanish class in the second semester – cold. Started halfway through and is top of the class, which includes Hispanic students, who should by rights be Easy A students, but aren’t. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Spain do all their work in Spanish, plus study English AND another foreign language like French or German or Italian. French students take English, German, Arabic, Spanish and can also add Latin.

How bad is it?  The Spanish exchange student is amongst the top three in the High School English class – beating out the majority of our town’s native English speakers easily. Our initially failing first year returnee French-speaking American students shot to the top of their classes in year two.  As “brown” as any Southern New World Hispanic, the multi-lingual sophomore student from Spain is taking pre-calculus and physics – with two years to go in high school;  our schools have nothing higher to offer. Solid study and academic skills make achievement  possible, even with an initial language handicap.

Those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it: George Washington was well-known before he became commander of the Continental Army; his lack of foreign language skills literally provoked an international diplomatic crisis:
“When he was around twenty two years old, Washington fired some of the first shots of what would become a war between colonial powers…in 1753, when the French began to build a series of forts in Ohio Country…on land also claimed by Virginia. Robert Dinwiddie the governor of Virginia sent Major Washington to deliver a letter to the French commander asking them to leave, the French refused. In 1754 Dinwiddie sent Washington, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel to ambush a French Canadian scouting party. After a short skirmish, Washington’s American Indian ally Tanacharison killed the wounded French commander Ensign Jumonville.

Washington then built Fort Necessity, which soon proved inadequate, as he was compelled to surrender to a larger French and American Indian force. The surrender terms that Washington signed included an admission that he had “assassinated” Jumonville. (The document was written in French, which Washington could not read.) The “Jumonville Affair” became an international incident and helped to ignite the French and Indian War, a part of the Seven Years’ War.” 1

As our military pays bonuses for what have become scarce skills in foreign languages, our schools – from coast to coast – have not delivered. Worse, ignorant educators, who are supposed to by their stated profession know better, push grossly faulty assumptions. French as a foreign language is considered “European” and somehow less relevant, so it’s disappearing as a study option for American students. Yet, the most useful foreign languages in the huge continent of Africa are English, French, Arabic and Portuguese.

While more people speak French throughout West and North Africa than in France, Portuguese is spoken by half of South America and in a number of African nations, plus Portugal, but it’s not an option in American schools. Ask most American students why Latin America is not called, “Hispanic America” and get blank stares. “Luzophone” doesn’t evoke any glimmers of recognition. What remains for French language instruction in American schools is mired in irrelevant, antiquated literature readings of truly annoying French authors like the terminally depressed and pathologically narcissist Maupassant, with nothing of the extremely popular and hilarious Asterisk and Obelisk or the sly Iznogaud.

The magic pill of computer instruction so loved by today’s schools as applied to foreign languages is a disaster. Language is fundamentally a human contact skill – meant to foster communications, cooperation and understanding between people. A machine is wholly inadequate. Languages must be taught by human beings – men and women who are competent in the languages and who can instruct others in learning to converse competently.

While students in other countries apply themselves to rigorous language study, American students are found again to be receiving a poor education product that doesn’t even come close to addressing national defense needs, much less business, commerce, diplomatic needs, and successful integration despite this nation spending billions nationally every year for schools and teachers.

Of course, how cool and how American culturally savvy would it be to have “APACHE” listed on one’s resume under ‘foreign languages?” The so-called educators today truly do not have the imaginations required to take advantage of what’s available right here, around us.

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