I was having dinner with the head of the math department at an Ivy League school last night. He mentioned that this past academic year in his school the faculty, in spite of his own protestations, had had a contentious set of meetings in which the foreign language requirement of two years was dropped.
I asked why he thought that had happened. He told me that most people didn’t realize the importance of a foreign language, especially in his field of math. For example, he said that in one field of math, called Algebraic Geometry, being able to read French was an absolute necessity.
I asked him if he thought there might be any other reasons for the school voting down foreign languages. He couldn’t think of any. I asked him to consider two things:
1. the teachers who voted it down may not be filled with their own fond memories of learning a language. (Jon Stewart said yesterday on his show in a big sigh, “Seven years of Spanish and all I can say is “Donde esta”.)
2. the teachers who voted it down didn’t consider it a very good product. They didn’t consider it a very good product for their university to be offering.
By asking these two questions, I was trying to get into this guy’s head. Maybe he would take some of what I said back to his school and share it with some language teachers, whose jobs are now in jeopardy because of the recent vote.
I was trying to get this guy to look at the idea that maybe students don’t like to feel bad about themselves when they learn a language. That maybe:
– the students hate languages at that school.
– they are good at history or science, but can’t successfully employ the same mindset to do well in their language classes.
– languages at this (very prestigious, top ten in U.S.) school don’t work because language acquisition is different from other kinds of learning.
– the brain treats language differently from normal human cognition and therefore should not be studied cognitively.
He didn’t go for it. Not at all. He didn’t get it. He couldn’t think outside his box. To him, because he had to learn to read French for his profession, others should. It calls up the question of whether we should even force language instruction on anybody.
There was another person at the table, a high school student (this was one of those big family get togethers where you meet people you don’t know but who are distantly related). This kid, a massive interior lineman on his high school football team, reported that he is taking German online with BYU.
Now that got the attention of the math professor. That was within the box of his thinking. He asked all sorts of questions about how it worked. The kid answered each question, but then, somewhat oddly, added three or four times in a defensive way, “But I haven’t had time to keep up with it because of football.”
Look inside the response of the kid. That is really a statement, a strong indictment really, of the notion that we must work hard outside of class in order to succeed at things in schools. But that is not true for us at all. All we need to do is hear and read the language as much as possible. As Nathan has initiated a wonderfully positive, intrinsically motivated, approach to homework in his teaching, so also are all of us learning to teach a language without relying on making kids do work outside of class unless they want to – it is of no value unless they want to do it.
By saying that he didn’t have time to keep up with it, this kid was basically saying that he wasn’t really learning the language. Why? Because there was no classroom in which he could hear the language. Instead of hearing it, he was interacting with it visually on his computer, a sure formula for failure in languages. Even if he did his homework, he wasn’t going to get command of anything real with the language. BYU should know that.
I came away from the evening quite discouraged that otherwise intelligent people could think this way and ever more grateful for my few friends who have accepted and embraced the idea of comprehensible input as the only real way to learn a language.
Admins don’t actually read the research. They don’t have time. If or when they do read it, they do not really grasp it. How could