I spent a very enjoyable ten days based out of Sittard, the Netherlands at the end of July 2010.  It wasn't all travel and vacation and seeing historical sites, though there was plenty of all of that.  I also had the opportunity to study local politics, and discuss the education systems of the Netherlands and the United States.

Our discussions were definitely fruitful, and I'm fairly confident that I learned a lot in the process.  At the same time, I was not about to blindly adhere to every idea to which I was introduced; I'm not about to advocate making the United States the clone of anyone, any more than I'll going to go to the top of Mount St. Peter and scream to the heavens that Americans have all the answers.  What works here at home isn't necessarily going to work as well in the Netherlands, or vice versa.

Yet there is one area in which I have to conclude that United States fails miserably: Language training.  In the Netherlands, foreign language education is extensive and rigorous, including in English and German.  In speaking with many Dutch citizens of all walks of life, I found it very unusual for anyone not to be fluent in English, unless they were either very young, or on the older end of life.  It was quite logical to assume that anyone whom one had to talk to, could speak English, and speak it competently.  Some were even better at it; one English teacher I met could have passed for an upper-class Englishman, despite having been educated entirely in the Netherlands.

The United States is far from this standard.  After giving the question a lot of thought, I think there are two main reasons.

The first is that language courses just aren't as rigorous as in the Netherlands, and even more telling, language is not taught for as long.  Americans should think back to how many years they took foreign languages.  In my late-seventies prep school experience, two years were required, and about normal.  Three years were for the language devotees.

In the Netherlands, one can look at six years of each foreign language - English, German and French.

At least as important is the reason why one studies a language.  In the United States, one is liable to hear that foreign language instruction helps one understand the world better, that it offers a window into other cultures.  That's all very nice.

All of the Dutch people with whom I spoke reflected a different standard: One studies a foreign language in order to speak it.  Fluency is the goal.

Now ask yourself this: How many Americans graduate from high school fluent in a language other than English, or a foreign language spoken at home?  It is quite rare to find an American who become fluent through school.  In fact, I wonder if high school might be the absolute worst place to learn a language, and apparently I'm not alone.

So what we have now are large groups of American students, herded into classrooms, and "educated" in a language that neither they nor their teachers ever expect them to be able to speak in the wild.  Ultimately, it becomes an enormous waste of time and resources.

On a personal level, I find it especially frustrating.  I have a Master's degree in political science, and I'm working on a second one in military history.  I could have really benefited from actual, functioning knowledge of at least one foreign language, and as someone with more formal education than most Americans, fluency should be expected.  Yet fluency in anything was neither offered nor demanded when I could have used it the most.

So with the problem of foreign language-challenged Americans identified, I can offer a two-part solution, based in part on the Dutch model. 

The first is to require more than two years of a foreign language.  Six years should be the standard, starting by the sixth grade.

Moreover, those courses should be rigorous and realistic, based on actual usage.  While it is vital to learn the rules of proper grammar and vocabulary, by the fifth year students should also be educated in idioms and even profanity, so that they can at least recognize it.

Teaching the right way to speak is just the start; teaching the way that people actually speak is equally important, and should not be neglected.

Secondly, language education should ditch the rationale that it is a window on other cultures.  That is an easy cop-out, and elevates a secondary goal to paramount status.  Instead, fluency has to be the be-all and end-all of language education, the ultimate goal for every student in every school.  Whether or not a student is expected to go on to college is immaterial; language education should embrace the notion that each blue-color or minimum-wage worker should be fluent in some language through his or her education.

Nor should the children of immigrants and those who speak English as a second language be neglected.  If someone speaks Spanish at home, for example, a high school diploma should mean that they speak both standard English and Spanish properly, and be fluent in at least one more language.

Fluency is the goal.  Lack of fluency is failure, especially for the education system.

It all comes down to one inescapable fact: The United States has far lower expectations than the Netherlands.  Should we raise our standards, we should be able to do at least as well as the Netherlands, or any other country for that matter.  If we maintain the status quo, then we confine more generations of students to an English-only prison, one in which they have no meaningful foreign language skills, and that window on other cultures closes too.

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Replies to This Discussion

As a professional language trainer to the French military, all I would add is that it is very hard to teach people to speak a language via an academic environment. The trick is to generate enough locutions toward a given objective that a student can fail many times, observe a colleague succeed, and then model his own language on that success. It works in my non-academic classroom. On the other hand, in the classroom where I'm learning Arabic our teacher is really great, clear, intelligent but the objective is "Okay this is how to put verbs into the third form. The diacriticals change like this..." Makes no impression on my because this is 1) not how I learn and 2) of no obvious utility.

You can learn any language quickly if there is no safety net. This requires more courage than most people possess. Americans, generally, don't have an acute need for another language. (Neither do French people). You don't learn what you don't need. Imagine for a moment how effective your military history coursework would be if you didn't eat unless you could describe the conditions leading up to the Crimean War.
I'm a big believer in immersion outside the classroom. I have students in the national security studies program at La Roche, and they have to become fluent in either Spanish or Arabic in order to graduate. All take academic language courses in either, then go to either Mexico or the Middle East to really learn. I also have friends in the Special Forces community; one of the best Spanish linguists learned through a combination of military training, one-on-one tutoring, and finally work in Latin America.

One thing that I noticed about the Netherlands was going to a movie; the theater was packed, and the film was the American original (Sorcerer's Apprentice for the record), though the trailers were mainly in Dutch. The movie had Dutch subtitles; this has to be a good bridge to learning and reinforcing colloquial English. As a friend told me though, they try teach Oxford English as an ideal in the schools, and people become more fluent in the "telly English" they pick up through movies and TV.
Got back from teaching in Estonia--all the courses are in English, so it made it quite easy on me. But the students all speak their host national tongues and are fluent in English, plus a number know quite a few other languages quite well, particularly Russian and German. The Finns typically know Russian and Swedish on top of Finnish and English, and quite a few were learning Estonian.

I learned both French and Russian in academic settings and have to agree immersion with no safety net is the best way to go. Nothing else compares.


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