Second Language Ed.

I hope I can find a large sample of people from different parts of the world to answer this. My question is: what are the merits of second language education? I would say intuitively that the sooner the better and that we should all learn at least one other language to make the world a better place.

However, I’m having second thoughts. Too often I’ve seen people who had second language education and yet could barely recall a word or two of that language. Second language education doesn’t make you a speaker of that language, especially when there is no opportunity to converse in that language, so what’s the point?

Lastly, out of pure curiosity I would like to know how the education system deals with second language education in your country, state, province, etc. I know that SLE is a bad word in some US states…

Only humans do inhuman things.

I am not sure if you are talking about English-speaking citizens of the US learning a foreign language, or non-English-speaking residents/citizens of the US learning English…

Assuming the former, I think, based on my experience in HS and college, that:

  1. Everyone should be encouraged to learn a second language at some time.

  2. If done early enough, it isn’t that important which one; you can learn a ‘useful’ one later.

  3. You learn more about English structure from learning a foreign language than if you never study one.

  4. The only way to retain what you learn is through usage. Usage of the new language should be encouraged.

  5. Even if you don’t retain working knowledge of the language, you learned valuable things about culture, language structure, word meaning, etc., making it not as useless as it seems.

I spent three years in HS learning Latin, and starting Russian. I continued Russian in college, where I also started German. Subsequently, I have worked on Spanish (I lived in a part of California where it was of great value) and French (I intended to be in France for World Cup '98). I have never regretted any time spent learning any of them. :slight_smile:

There is some evidence that:

  1. The younger years are the language-forming years, when the ability to acquire a language is at its height. I.e., it is in fact easier for a six-year-old to learn Nahuatl than for his Ph.D. father.

  2. Children who learn to speak more than one language seem to have a facility for keeping vocabulary, syntax, etc. separated so that they ask for, e.g., pan y mantequilla in a Spanish sentence and bread and butter in an English sentence, more or less automatically.

Sorry I don’t have cites on hand on this. Both my wife and I are interested in linguistics, and she took an advanced linguistics course while completing her degree in anthropology a few years ago. The info. is from her text, which I read but whose authors and title I don’t remember.


With regards to people losing the second language, it’s like anything else you learn in High School or university, and then never use. The fact that it turned out not to be very useful in your life, so you didn’t keep it up, isn’t an argument against it in the first place.

For example, I took calculus in university, because I was thinking of a degree in chemistry. Later, I switched to Arts, and never touched calculus again. Couldn’t do a derivative or integration now if my life depended on it (which is not to say I was very good at it at the time, either). But, I wouldn’t say that because I don’t need calculus in my daily life, that I made a mistake to take it.

Oh, and the other point

I disagree with your premise. I’m an anglo, but I’m fluent in French, as a result of my second language education. However, it’s not something you can learn in one or two classes: I took it from Grades 7 to 12, in university, and ultimately spent time in Quebec.

Just like one course of music ed. won’t make you a concert pianist, just a couple of courses of language training won’t make you fluently bilingual. It takes work, and the opportunity to use the language.

as for the lack of opportunity to use the language, if someone’s serious enough about it, there are always opportunities. for example, I live in a predominantly anglophone province, but belong to a French-language conversation group, and a French-language professional group.

In reply to your third question, to the best of my knowledge, in every Canadian province, second language training is available in the schools: French in the anglo provinces, English in Quebec.

Each province also has schools for the minority language group in that province, and the majority language for that province would be taught in those schools as a second language.

and by the way, I agree with the points made by DSYoungEsq and Polycarp.

And, in amplification of Polycarp’s point #1, the constant talking/babbling performed by infants and young children is part of a process of listening to the child’s parents and, basically, “filtering out” the phonemes that are not used in the language they speak. Children will, in the course of learning to use their speech organs, form all sorts of phonemes that don’t occur in their language, but eventually, through disuse, lose the facility to make them. That’s why high school French and Spanish can be so hard for some; they aren’t as able to retrieve those phonemes from their language center.

I was required to take 5 years of foreign languages between 6th and 12th grades, but that was a private school. Growing up in the Southwest US, I also had a vey immersion into Spanish language and hispanic culture. While I hated my German classes in High School, I don’t regret a single conjugation now.

There is no such thing as useless education, IMO. Unused, sure–I don’t use much of my third-year calculus. But it’s all in what you make of it.


There’s always a bigger fish.

The only thing I can see as a disadvantage is if you had to forfeit a real life opportunity for it. (Example I dropped German to take a second gym class as it was my last year in HS and I needed to take Driver’s Ed.)

But I learned all about structure in German. I never learned was a direct or indirect object was until I took German. I can still make out German books with a lot of effort.

My original language is Serbo-Croation and ironically haven’t used it in 25 years. I today can’t make out much in it.

To those who are monolingual: I spurn you as I would spurn a rabid dog.

But seriously, how can people stand it? People would have killed to have opportunity to learn new languages many years ago. Now it’s so easy to learn one (it doesn’t cost 3 weeks wages for a book) and there are people who don’t.

Save yourself! Go outside! Do something!

Yo creo que hablar una lengua segunda es muy importante, especialmente en areas bilinguales, como el Sudoeste de los Estados Unidos.

And to all you Español speakers out there, yes, that was pretty crummy Spanish. It’s been a while since I took it in high school, but at least I remember that much. I don’t feel like all those years of Spanish were wasted, because if nothing else, it showed me that not everybody does things the same way as English speakers, language-wise, and otherwise.

Between HS and assorted college degrees, I punched in at 11 yrs of French. To my shame, I have lost most of it. No, I just never stretched far enough to keep myself conversant in it by USING it.

But on some level, I still know it, even if the vocabulary stumps me. I was amazed on some trips to Mexico how well I could limp along in Spanish, just because of all that French. (Another lapsed linguist w/ anthro background…) But learning one Romance language helped amazingly in coping with another on the street level.

It was time well spent, some of the most valuable there was.

(who frequently fractures English)

Neuro-grrl, no te preocupes por los errores, se aprecia el esfuerzo.

Overall, I’d say that a proper SLE program in and of itself would be a good thing to include in the curriculum in the same way that (for some people) is geometry: it “exercises” your mind, makes you figure out new ways to think.

Insofar as my observations on SLE, I seem to have gathered that the opportunity to use is key to retaining the skill. Not only that, but if there’s a perception that you will not have the need/opportunity, and that it’s therefore pointless, then that right there discourages the pupil. Imposing it as something that is to be done by rote “just because” to meet a Std. Test requirement, results in apathy. (And yes, making it look like you’re doing it to accommodate a particular group, does create resistance. Sigh.)

That, I think, is another reason to start SLE at a very early age: the child is much more capable of developing a new language skill, yes: but he/she is also much less capable of deciding that the course has no merit and does not deserve her/his effort.

En este parte de California, es bueno conocer un otra lengua. Tal como Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, o Español. Por ejemplo, muchas tiendas en Salinas (un ciudad cerca de mi universidad)están poseído por muchas residentes que están imigrantes de México. Muchas no saben hablar en ingles.

I just said (for those who dont know Spanish): In this part of California, it’s good to know another language. Such as Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish.For example, many stores in Salinas (a city near my university, they are owned by many residents that are imigrants from Mexico. Many don’t know how to speak in English.

So, in order to communicate with those who dont speak your language well, learning a second one can be helpful (and it helps you to understand them). Others have mentioned that learning a second language helps you to understand your native language better, and I couldn’t agree more. I have learned more about grammar in my Spanish classes at my university than I had in my English clases in high school and elementary school. I understand the grammar of English better through learning Spanish. It may also inspire you to read up on other languages also (like it has done to me.

Language is a ‘use it or lose it’ type of thing. I can attest to that. A couple of summers ago, I took a Tagalog course at my University over the summer. It was an intensive course (5 hrs a day, 5 days a week), and I learned much. I learned so much i could write a one page essay in the language. I even did a skit at the end of the course party in the language. Since i didn’t have regular access to native speakers i lost almost all of my knowledge of it (I can decipher many things but I cant say more than greetings and naughty words!)

Useage also improves fluency. I am by no means fluent in Spanish, but I can hold a simple conversation and I can also write out essays in the language. I hope to study abroad in Spain or in one of the Central or South American countries for a year to improve my speaking skills.

With the advent of the Internet you have access to speakers of many different languages (there are chatrooms, and even usenet newsgroups set up for different languages). It also helps to learn the language of the people who make up most of the non English speaking community in your area.

I would like to see schools implementing ‘foreign’ languages during the early years of elementary education, and continue the courses through high school. At least in my Junior High they did have foreign language classes, and that is where I started learning Spanish (the class was taught by an evil Bolivian woman (La Bruja!), but she’s another story). The majority of foreign language classes are taught in high school (at least in the US AFAIK. I only took two years, when I would have liked to have taken the full four years.

At my university, the courses are set up so that you learn greetings, and simple grammar in the first level of the language, and as you go up, you learn more about the grammar, and work on your listening, reading, and writing skills. In the course I am in now (third semester), my professor only speaks in Spanish, unless she is explaining a grammatical concept. She also has us speak in the language when asking or answering questions, and she has us talk to our partners. I understand 99% if what she says most of the time :). We also have ‘facilitators’ who talk to us in Spanish, and we are supposed to talk back with them in Spanish, to practice our speaking skills also.

Last but not least, I believe that you have to at least like, if not love the language you are taking for it to not be a chore. I love learning Spanish, and I think it’s fun to be able to speak in another language.

Look, not to get too philisophical, it seems to me that the whole point of a good chunk of our educations is to see the world from as many vantage points as possible.

While all good art (lit/poetry/music/visual) imparts some common humanity, it also teaches us to see things from some new perspective. History does the same by removing us from the present. So to do science and math, broadening our conceptions of the world about us.

Well, foreign laguages do the exact same thing. Learning how others communicate takes you outside your narrow little world. Bavarians say, literally, “Greet God!”, for hello. Hungarian is the dirtiest language in the world (I’ll spare you examples). And Germans hold their verbs until the very end of the sentence. (So you could literally say, “Hey Bill, your daughter with the High School science teacher under the tree outside of school grounds with little clothing on at 3 pm talked.”) How does that affect German culture and personality? I don’t know, but it’s a good start.

The more of the world you can see, the more you can see of yourself. This is true in language, history, politics, art, anything. I only wished I’d paid more attention to my French subjunctives in high school.

I’m from Iceland and over here they teach English and Danish as second and third language, from 10-11 year old and up to 15-16. After that your education depends upon what you choose after school, as anywhere else in the world.

The thing is that most people here speak english but can hardly utter a single word in danish. I think the reason for this is that movies and TV shows are in english and therefore provide people with at least some practice in understanding english. As proof of this theory I offer you my personal experience: I moved to Denmark for a year when I was 17-18 and after two months of watching danish TV-shows with the text function for deaf people turned on I could speak Danish and still can two years later. :slight_smile:

Hubby’s parents are straight off the boat-no-english-spoken (except Elvis Presley songs) Germans. He was born a year after their arrival. When he started kindergarten no one noticed it, but half way through first grade someone realized he spoke more german, with an accent, than english, because english was not enforced at home. I’m not sure if he received special tutoring or his parents decided to work harder at english at home, but he caught up to the rest of his classmates. He speaks perfect-accentless english- ( and cannot do a German accent to save his life, amazingly enough.) however- his reading skills are stretched because he was never read to as a child. He can speak, read and write german, which is fairly uncommon in 1st generation kids according to several older krauts that I know. His German is excellent ( not perfect, according to some natural germans/snobs)He was a average student his whole life, but the one class he should have aced, German, he nearly failed because it was too easy for him and he fooled around too much.

In comparison, his sister came along three years after him and by this time, english was the first language in their home. She understands german but never put together a sentance or attempted too until she was 25 or so. Her grades were always much higher than his.

It is a gift to speak another language and allows a freedom for hubby and his sister when traveling to have the confidence and freedom to go hither and yon knowing you have a firm grasp of a secondary language just in case.

My inlaws speak excellent english with no mistakes. They never speak their native language at home unless someone is reprimanding someone else infront of company. Then you know someone’s getting pistol whipped. They just started receiving an english paper after 30 plus years of german papers. Reading english has not been as easy for them.

I worked with a woman who moved here when she was 20 from Yugoslavia and spoke no english. 28 years later she speaks it like you and I, but she made a huge effort to learn. We use to have to deal with the other members of her Yugo community and some had been here for 50 years (50 years!) and could barely peice together a complete sentence. That is something that annoys me greatly. If you move here LEARN TO DO AND TALK AS THE ROMANS DO.

Where the hell was I going with this?..

End rant. Have a nice day.

Oh yes, now I remember…

Second languages should be taught in school, but not starting ( like my school did) in 9th grade, but 1st or 2nd grade. The basics of French, Spanish, German and Japanese (and latin too) should be taught until the child can make a decision ( say 5th grade) to commit to one for the rest of their schooling.

Our schools are too insular by far. We have to teach a broader spectrum, so show kids ( and adults) that the USA is not the only country in the world ( We may be best at some things, but other countries are just as proud as we are about their heritage, flag, people,etc.) and there are a whole lot of other people inhabiting this rock called earth.

Learning the language helps open up borders and promote understanding and conversation instead of confusion and mistrust of “some of
those foriegners.”

I would love to teach, if they still call it this, Social Studies/Geography.

::stepping off soap box:::

Here in Manitoba,you have the option to register your child in an English language school, a French Immersion school, a francais school (all subjects but English taught in French)or, in some areas, instruction in Hebrew, German, or Icelandic (that I know of).

The idea of early second language instruction is facility in speaking the language. My own daughter was switched from French Immersion to a francais school because of her facility with the language, then went to an English language high school because she was headed to an English language university (her choice).

However, my French is clumsy, as I was taught in a country school by a man whose first language was Ukrainian. Her accent is very good, to the point where she is mistaken for being French.

My point? I sent her to French Immersion initially because I thought she was bright and school would bore her (we have no classes here for gifted kids). Her brother, who hadn’t the language skills, was switched from Immersion to an English school after grade five, and today has French skills about at my own level.

If you want a child to learn another language, then start them as young as you can. I don’t think ANY knowledge is useless, and the sooner they learn there’s other ways of looking at things, the better it is.

(An aside: I couldn’t stop the francais school from putting her in religion classes, even tho our family is Protestant. They just couldn’t get their minds around why a non-RC child would be in their school!).