September 19, 2014

Scrolling Headlines:

Work already underway for SGA speaker Sïonan Barrett -

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UMass in for a challenge against Penn State, QB Hackenberg -

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Nostalgia and angst abound in ‘Palo Alto’ -

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Want student power? End the SGA -

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UMass football kicking situation still undecided, looking forward to opportunity to play at Beaver Stadium -

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Lorenzo Woodley finds opportunity after getting lost in the shuffle -

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Millennials’ votes can make a difference in all elections -

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UMass faculty member Bonnie Strickland recognized for work in psychology -

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UMass women’s soccer suffers major set back with injury to co-captain Jackie Bruno -

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UMass men’s soccer returns home looking for season’s first win -

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UMass professor Elizabeth Chilton to speak in Madrid and Paris about importance of heritage studies -

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UMass club rugby hopes to continue momentum despite opening loss -

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Bizarre foods eaten worldwide -

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US should spend more on space -

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Walking through a week of practice with UMass field hockey -

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UMass receives $37.5 million for environmental and sustainability initiatives -

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Irish coffee recipe -

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To fight ISIS, US must understand them, not chalk up actions to pure evil -

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UMass tennis is reloading, not rebuilding in 2014 -

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Fast food workers need more than $7.25 to sustain basic living -

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The unexplored effects of learning a foreign language

According to the United States Census, just over 12 percent of the U.S. population is fluent in Spanish.

Spanish is the most-studied language in the U.S. secondary education system, through which nearly everyone has passed at some point.

Flickr/ktschram

These statistics would seem to leave the observer to conclude that the United States’ foreign language secondary education system is a complete failure, since clearly the vast majority of Spanish students never end up being fluent in Spanish. This seeming failure also applies to French, German, Italian, Chinese and every other modern language currently offered in schools. If the vast majority of Americans studied a language in high school, then shouldn’t we all be bilingual?

The answer, while seemingly a puzzling one, is that high school students do not study a foreign language in order to learn the language.

Students enter the education system with their own conceptions of the English language that are shaped by their upbringing. Since most parents don’t drill their children on the technical nuances of a language when teaching them to talk, it is up to the education system to teach students these rules.

This is where foreign language comes in. In secondary education, foreign language is unique among the fields of study, as its benefit is not in its perceived goal (i.e. learning another language), but rather in the process by which the student seeks to achieve that goal. The very act of learning an entirely new language from scratch in a non-immersion setting forces the student to confront grammar rules, tenses, parts of speech, and other aspects of language that are passed over when children are first taught to speak.

To illustrate my point, I took Latin in high school. When my teacher first told us about something called a “perfect passive participle,” I was utterly baffled. I had never quite understood the difference between gerunds and participles before high school (in my defense, they do both end in “-ing” quite often). It soon dawned on me, however, that this participle had a completely benign and reasonable use; in fact, I had been unwittingly using it for most of my life. Perfect passive participles convey the idea that something happened to a noun in the past; where Latin would say “musica audita ab populo fuit bona,” English would say “the music heard by the people was good.”

With my personal example comes another interesting part of my observations: that a student can reap the true benefit of studying a foreign language not only by studying modern languages, but also languages that can be reasonably called dead, such as Latin or Ancient Greek.

In fact, it may be advantageous for a student to study a dead language, as these languages are no longer changing. While all modern languages are constantly evolving, dead languages are immobile. As a result, the grammar rules for Latin, Ancient Greek, and other dead languages are well known and concrete. While English is notorious for having fuzzy rules that have exceptions with exceptions, Latin has very explicit rules for prose. This, combined with less time wasted on a speaking component in class (as dead languages aren’t usually spoken), creates the optimal situation by which foreign language students can achieve the true goal of foreign language education: to relearn grammatical structure from scratch.

Now, most arguments against teaching dead languages lean heavily on the fact that no one speaks them or uses them for any meaningful communication anymore. Proponents of Spanish argue that teaching Spanish gives the greatest benefit, as they say it enables students to speak to the growing Hispanic population of America. Proponents of French say the same for Québécois; proponents of German say the same for Germans. Their arguments would all be valid if our educational system were set up to actually produce fluent students; but, as the statistics show us, it clearly is not.

High schools should spend less time fighting a failing effort for fluency in foreign language and spend more time on the structure and grammar rules of the language, where the real benefit lies. One need only look at the increasingly poor grammar of the younger generation to realize that something must be done in this vein.

I studied Latin. While its usefulness may not seem apparent due to its label as a dead language, it certainly bears significance to my understanding of my own language’s structure, and in that regard it is very much alive in both my mind and in the minds of all of its students.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at sherlitz@student.umass.edu.

 

Comments
6 Responses to “The unexplored effects of learning a foreign language”
  1. Stefan, you say that “High schools should spend …… more time on the structure and grammar rules of the language, where the real benefit lies. ” I must admit I do not agree with you at all. This is the very reason why success in learning foreign languages, for the ones who attempt it, is so abysmally low and is one reason I suspect that so few even attempt it. If they new it was going to be engaging and enjoyable then more people would attempt it ..possibly!
    Study grammar and structure for most people is dreadfully boring. What is fun is learning to speak it and use it, and of course learning grammar is the outcome of that ( if taught in the right way)….NOT the other way around!

    In our society with so many things vying for our attention, it is even more imperative that the experiences that we give our children ( and ourselves!) are worthwhile in their own right. That is, we enjoy and look forward to our experiences of it.

  2. Manuel says:

    I’ll have to agree with Andrew. Grammar and structure study of languages is exactly what is done in high school, along with very monotonous drilling and very little actual speaking. It is boring and most often non-beneficial, and, as a result, students tend to loathe/feel apathetic towards foreign languages.

  3. SHerlitz says:

    Andrew:
    Of course many people find the direct study of grammar rules boring- that’s why High School English classes still review basic grammatical concepts every year, as students don’t usually remember subjects that bored them to tears.
    That’s why foreign language study does this better- it can mask the monotony of grammar rules with the study of another language and culture. It’s much more fun to use newly-learned grammar rules to translate an Roman epic than to hear a teacher drone on about how “The man was bitten by the dog” is a usage of the passive voice.
    You see, in your argument, you end up agreeing with my point. Yes, it is fun to use the language, and you learn grammar as an outcome. That’s the whole idea.

    Manuel,
    I’m not sure what your school did, but my school’s Spanish classes were highly focused on speaking presentations and such.
    Yes, grammar rules are boring when presented directly. A good foreign language teacher can teach the rules in a fun and interesting way, as they have an entire other culture with which to draw interest.

  4. Quintillian says:

    > According to the United States Census, just over 12 percent of the U.S. population is fluent in Spanish.
    I’m not sure where you got this figure. 12 percent of the population primarily speaks Spanish at home, but that’s a matter of demographics, not language education.

    > The very act of learning an entirely new language from scratch in a non-immersion setting forces the student to confront grammar rules, tenses, parts of speech, and other aspects of language that are passed over when children are first taught to speak.
    Simply teaching those concepts as part of English education for native speakers in school would have the same effect. There was a time when they did this, you know! Maybe we ought to bring it back. In the meantime, you can take an introductory linguistics course here and draw trees for English sentences until the cows come home.

    > While all modern languages are constantly evolving, dead languages are immobile.
    “Immutable”, surely!

    > As a result, the grammar rules for Latin, Ancient Greek, and other dead languages are well known and concrete. While English is notorious for having fuzzy rules that have exceptions with exceptions, Latin has very explicit rules for prose.
    It depends on what you mean by “Latin”. The grammar of Latin varies enormously by time and place. If it appears to have an easily defined set of rules, that’s because you’re studying a subset of a really narrow dialect (the literary dialect used in the late Republican and early Imperial periods). Read something from 200 years earlier or later, and every rule you learned in Latin 2 will be broken (yes, “dico ut canis est magnus” is perfectly fine in later Latin).
    Anyway, there are plenty of exceptions and holes in Latin grammar. How should you use reflexives in subordinate clauses? What do you do about indirect questions nested in indirect statements? What tenses and moods do you use for conditionals? (Rest assured that this is just as hairy in Latin as it is in English.) A language will seem very neat and regular if you’re ignoring all the tricky bits.

    > Their arguments would all be valid if our educational system were set up to actually produce fluent students; but, as the statistics show us, it clearly is not.
    There’s no guarantee that a grammar-oriented class will teach students anything either. Remember, one of the nice things about Latin classes is that the students in them are generally self-selected, but you still meet people who took three years and couldn’t tell you the part of speech of “fero”.
    And it’s not as if grammatical concepts can’t be readily extracted from modern languages. If you take German, there’s more of an emphasis on practical languge skills, but you’re still going to have to learn about cases and tenses.

    > One need only look at the increasingly poor grammar of the younger generation to realize that something must be done in this vein.
    Hmph. Decaying grammar and crumbling morality. What a classically Roman idea.

  5. SHerlitz says:

    Quintillian, (like the name by the way)
    First off, that’s quite a comment- allow me to respond. Just going to number this for the sake of readability.
    1. The Census figure denotes those who checked off that they are fluent in Spanish on census forms.
    2. They do do this, but it isn’t as effective- you relearn all of the types of phrases basically every year. The point of using a foreign language to do this is to mask the tedium with an interesting new language and culture. They don’t usually offer linguistics in high schools.
    3. Bah, you caught me- the original version had a verb of motion instead of “evolving”, and so I used “immobile” to contrast with it.
    4. Yes, yes it does, but I am referring to solely Classical Literary Latin. Foreign language classes focus on this version, as it is the most well-understood and concrete version. Latin class does not necessitate the study of other dialects.
    Some issues can arise when you delve deep into syntax, but these things are rarely reached by most Latin classes. Only the Latin Club students really end up having to deal with these truly tricky parts, which do have accepted answers in modern understanding of literary Latin. Latin is useful specifically because the basics of the language have much less craziness than English, even if it still has some advanced tricky parts.
    5. Of course you’ll always encounter students with an astounding knack for forgetting things, but I do argue that a grammar-intensive environment will stimulate at least an increased awareness of grammatical structure. While a student may be incredibly poor at remembering vocabulary and endings, they may still come out with a better understanding of what certain grammatical terms refer to.
    With German, you’re going to have to learn cases/tenses, but not as intensely as with Latin. The point is to foster an increased understanding of these.
    6. Not the morality bit (I’m not nearly as much of a drama queen as good old Augustus), but the grammar, surely.

  6. Well actually it has nothing to with the language aptitude. It get by in English without knowing all the names for all the tenses. It is the way it is taught. Languages are not for fluency, but as another academic subject.

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