In high school, I took French and German, and in college I took Hebrew. I spent four months in Israel studying Hebrew and three months in France learning ten french words for chicken coop. So I’m coming to this conversation with a bias in favor of learning a second language.
I read it’s next to impossible for parents to teach a baby a language that is not your native language. And my friends who spoke second languages beautifully confirmed this universal failing to be true.
That seemed fine. French is my best language and even the Francophiles in Montreal won’t speak French to someone from the States. So I hired a Spanish-speaking nanny who knew no English.
It sort of worked. By age three, my son said all Thomas the Tank Engine train names with a Spanish accent, and he truly believed all Toy Story characters only spoke Spanish. But what I found is that if the nanny was not there most of the day, my son was not learning Spanish. You really need to have the person speaking full-time in order for this all to work. By age 4 there was no more Spanish. And by age 12 he didn’t remember a word of Spanish.
I didn’t care until he was 13 and announced he wants to be Mr. Go To College, and he needed a second language. As a homeschooler he doesn’t have grades, so he will have to prove proficiency by taking an AP Spanish exam. I hired a tutor and the first thing she said was, “He has a great accent.”
It turns out no one really learns a second language in US schools. Look at these shockingly miserable statistics from Pew Research:
Only 25% of American adults self-report speaking a language other than English, according to the 2006 General Social Survey. Of those who know a second language, 43% said they can speak that language “very well.” Within this subset of multilinguals who are well-versed in a non-English language, 89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition.
Very few Americans learn a second language fluently in school. But we are not alone. Canada requires everyone to take ten years of French, and most Canadians are not fluent. Other English-speaking countries make just as poor an effort. For example in the US, 20% of students take classes for a second language, compared to only 10% in Australia.
One of the reasons English-speaking kids don’t learn a second language is there’s not much benefit. Most opportunities present themselves in English. And most non-native English speakers learn English as a second language. The time my son is most likely to use his Spanish is to talk about walking the dog so the dog doesn’t get too excited.
In contrast, the rest of the world really wants to learn English – first to play video games and then to have more job opportunities. And most of the world lives very close to people who do not speak their native language, so there is a benefit to learning their neighbor’s language.
There are benefits to learning a second language even if you can’t speak it, but there are benefits to all the other things you could have done with that time as well: learn to play piano, learn to do improv, finish a triathlon, etc. Each of those activities helps the brain develop in new ways.
Instead, we should consider that there is little incentive for American kids to learn a second language, so they don’t. Even if you force the kids to sit in a classroom to learn the second language.
I’m worried about spending so much time and money to teach my son Spanish. The Spanish tutor is tough – in a good way – and she has been very effective at teaching my son time management and personal responsibility. So, I am joining the legions of parents who say their kid is learning a second language for reasons that go beyond fluency.
But I can’t help thinking the lesson he’s really learning is that there is no value in controlling your own curricula. And I’m frustrated with myself for not finding a way to be competitive in college admissions without capitulating to forced curricula.