Are we teaching the wrong languages?

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(Image courtesy of  Marcus Koljonen)

In a recent editorial in the WSJ, John McWhorter, a French major, argues that we are stuck in the past, teaching languages that are no longer useful to today’s students, who are of course the future of our nation.  Mr. McWhorter makes three points in his argument:

1. Chinese and Arabic first, with Spanish as training wheels

He does not say to get rid of European languages like French and German, but instead suggests keeping them available for those interested, while making offering languages like Chinese and Arabic a priority in American schools. He also suggests uses Spanish in elementary school as a language learning start-up – a way to ease into the more difficult Chinese and Arabic courses. With our growing reliance upon eastern nations, it is hard to deny the need to provide students with the opportunity to learn these vital world languages.

2. Reading should be secondary to speaking

Instead of harping on learning difficult characters, students should learn to speak first so they do not get discouraged early in the learning process, suggests McWhorter.

3. Revise the conception of what idioms are

Here, an acronym, DEPICT, is used to note that speaking is not merely knowing words and putting them in the correct order, but also understanding cultural phrases and word-associated feelings.

To speak is to be able to: Disapprove beyond just not liking (“the wrong hat,” “it doesn’t fit,” “it’s supposed to be…”); Experience beyond mere liking (“looks,” “sounds,” “smells,” “tastes,” “feels like,” “you can tell”); Precisify (“all the way up to,” “that much,” “right into”); render the Inexact (“and things like that,” “about four of them,” “not necessarily”); convey Counterexpectation (“even without a shirt,” “do it anyway”); and Transform (“make it nicer,” “pretend”).

What do you think? Our we teaching today’s students the wrong languages?

Related post: Chinese in, European languages out

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