Balls on Foreign Languages

by Harry on December 10, 2007

Ed Balls makes the following, bizarre comment, in yesterday’s interview with Andrew Marr:

Also make sure that every child is being taught a foreign language in primary school.

What is he thinking?

A much better idea is to wait until the children are 14 or so. That way you can be sure that most will never actually learn the language in question, and be pretty sure that they will have an unpleasant time while not learning it. That’s what we try to do here in America. Then, if they have failed to learn a language in high school, we force them to fail to learn a language again in college, requiring 3 semesters of a foreign language, usually taught by people who have no teaching qualifications, and often with minimal supervision. This helps cross-subsidise language/literature departments, but ensures that our students remain monoglots. The Balls interview makes me worry that we have someone in post who just doesn’t get it.

{ 63 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 12.10.07 at 5:08 pm

Hey, the special excellence of the American educational system isn’t limited to languages, either! Take our unique math education philosophy of teaching ever less math, at an ever slower pace, and utilizing in the earlier grades teachers extensively unqualified to teach any math at all! That’s been an equally brilliant success.

2

lindsey 12.10.07 at 5:08 pm

What is he thinking?

Oh my gosh, I really thought you were serious. I don’t think I’ve seen this level of sarcasm from you, ever. I was about to yell at you. (Though, as an aside, the kids I’m teaching in France right now have taken English since primary school, and well, not much better. But that has more to do with how languages are taught here than anything else.)

3

Adam Kotsko 12.10.07 at 5:09 pm

I agree — the goal of language education in America is to convince Americans that learning another language is impossible.

4

Arthur Goldhammer 12.10.07 at 5:17 pm

Are you trying to put us translators out of business by suggesting that Americans actually learn other languages? This is an unfair labor practice.

5

robertdfeinman 12.10.07 at 5:18 pm

There are actually some developmental effects which make it much easier to learn a second language at an early age. You can see this everyday as toddlers with non-English speaking parents switch language from home to school.

About the age of 12 there is some sort of “ossifying” in the brain which prevents one from learning a new language without an accent.

All that is required is for native language speakers to play and read stories to young kids. There is no need to go into grammar, vocabulary or reading. Canada has many bi-lingual schools, but it would be too much for the US to learn from some other country.

6

Matt 12.10.07 at 5:28 pm

I “taught English” (meaning that I spent a lot of time in English classes helping out in various small ways the people who knew what they were actually doing) as part of my job while living in Russia for a few years. I saw language instruction there at a number of levels. Kids who had fairly intensive language study from an early age (often first grade, usually 5 classes a week) learned English very well by the time they graduated from school (at 16.) Students who has less intensive instruction learned much less well, about like American students, it seemed. But what really impressed me were the college students- often they came in w/ a pretty bad knowledge of English. By the second year they usually were as good as most graduates from US universities that major in a language. By they time they graduated (5 years) almost all were excellent and the best were fully fluent. The big differences from language training in the US was that much more time was spent in language class, much, much more drilling was done, especially of grammer but also on accent, and the classes were taught by people who saw themselves foremost as langauge teachers, not scholars of literature or the like (though they often were this as well.)

(I’d disagree w/ roberdfeinman’s remare about accent- many people I knew spoke essentially w/ no accent despite learning the language at an older age. All that’s needed is a large amount of tedious work.)

Starting early probably has real advantages. I’d like to see more of it. But not doing so is only one of the many flaws in US language instruction.

7

Raghav 12.10.07 at 6:04 pm

It’s a commonplace that younger children learn languages more easily than older children or adults, but it turns out it’s pretty difficult to find any evidence for it. See, for example, Language Acquisition: The Age Factor by D. M. Singleton.

I doubt that any method of language instruction will get Americans to learn languages as well as, say, the Dutch. Language acquisition is so hard that everyone, except for a motivated few, won’t learn a language unless they really need to. And most Americans don’t need to.

8

Paul Ding 12.10.07 at 6:15 pm

Please note that ENGLISH IS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE in the United States.

Cre, Seminole, Oglala, Cherokee, now *those* are American languages. English is a European one.

9

JakeB 12.10.07 at 6:32 pm

pace robertdfeinman, it may be that the primary reason for the persistence of foreign accent in those who learn other languages later in life has to do with massive muscular overlearning of the sounds of one’s native language; that is, you pronounce a ‘t’ a certain way long enough, and it’s hard to change how you do it, and when speaking at a normal conversational speed, you don’t have time to consciously control muscle movements with such fineness.

On the other hand, adults, who tend to have a better understanding of how to learn about structures formally, frequently learn some of the higher-level aspects of a language (some syntax, for instance) more easily than children do.

10

dutchmarbel 12.10.07 at 7:39 pm

I doubt that any method of language instruction will get Americans to learn languages as well as, say, the Dutch.

You forgot the “used to” at the end of the sentence. These days it is only English that is tought at a reasonable level.

One can become pretty fluent in a foreign language, even when you only start when you are older. But getting rid of accents requires talent, not just work. My English is pretty fluent when spoken, but there are often words where I can’t hear the difference even when it it is obvious for a Native English speaker – and I doubt wether I’ll ever lose the harsh Dutch accent.

The manner of teaching is very important though. Not just two hours in the week in a classroom, but really submerge in the language.

11

Cryptic Ned 12.10.07 at 8:09 pm

Please note that ENGLISH IS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE in the United States.

Cre, Seminole, Oglala, Cherokee, now those are American languages. English is a European one.

Whoa, now there’s a fatuous comment. I wonder what this was meant to accomplish.

12

Nordic Mousse 12.10.07 at 8:41 pm

“One can become pretty fluent in a foreign language, even when you only start when you are older. But getting rid of accents requires talent, not just work”

I couldn’t agree more

13

a 12.10.07 at 8:55 pm

I think the British come a pretty close second to the Americans in not learning a foreign language. I wonder what they have in common?

As an aside, my home town in the U.S. started teaching French from the third grade when I was a kid (now it’s Spanish). That didn’t mean we *learned* French, because it was pretty much on the level of repeating “Bonjour” and “Ca va” over and over again. Still, by the time I left high school, I could read French pretty proficiently.

14

Michael Mouse 12.10.07 at 9:15 pm

Have no fear. Balls knows the effect that the Literacy Hour and Numeracy Strategies have had in instilling a lifelong loathing of literature and sums, and is banking on the same mechanism operating here with foreign languages.

15

Jake 12.10.07 at 9:33 pm

I am sure lots of research describes more rigorously than I can how much more likely it is to master another language if learned early. However, just a personal note of anecdotal information:
I learned English and Arabic at about the same time, as a young child. I am fluent in both.
But as for learning “foreign languages”– which I began to do in American schools, in the normal manner described above– I was exposed to Spanish as an adolescent, took four (4) years! of it, got straight A’s, and I was never close to fluent in the language. If I had gone to a Spanish speaking country my last year of high school, when theoretically I was at my best in the language, I would have been totally lost. I could read it better than speak it, but neither well enough to survive a normal day.

16

lindsey 12.10.07 at 10:05 pm

What they should be doing is encouraging middle school / high school aged kids to study for a year in another country. That’s one of the best ways to learn a language, and it will teach them so much more besides. In the US, for the most part, no one studies abroad prior to college (if then), which is a shame. Our high school had many exchange students, though, from Germany/France/Spain/etc. Of course they’d have to make it accessible financially, which I can see being problematic.

17

bleh 12.10.07 at 11:21 pm

hopefully this will mean that GCSE and A level modern languages will no longer be a total joke. All the post results day whining in the press about standards is quite justified when it comes to these.

18

SG 12.10.07 at 11:52 pm

This debate is happening here in Japan too. University students I speak to about it universally say – “what’s the point in doing 10 years of shit language study, instead of 5?” Either way they will not be able to speak English well when they leave school, until someone actually starts teaching English in those 5 or 10 years.

I have students here who have studied English for 7 years and can’t say “could you say that again please?” They simply blurt out “1 more!”

So it’s okay Harry, if this idea does take off, just import Japanese methods for teaching English and everything will be fine.

19

Jabot 12.11.07 at 12:08 am

My wife is Taiwanese and our 4 year old twins have grown up with her mother around much of the time. My wife and her mother speak Mandarin Chinese all the time when I am not there and most of the time when I am. The twins however attend a daycare, and when it is just me and my wife with the twins we speak English only. (She spends an hour daily with her parents on MSN speaking Chinese in front of the twins.) And the twins attend a day care where English is the exclusive spoken language. At this point the twins are exclusively English speakers. I would like them to be bi-lingual and so would my wife but it hasn’t worked out. I am curious how this fits in with some of the comments about the ease of early language acquisition.

20

Slocum 12.11.07 at 12:11 am

The obvious problem is that most of the rest of the world has an obvious second language to learn (generally English) and plenty of opportunities to put English to good use — in music or movies or on the web, at the very least, if English speakers are not found nearby. But usually they are, since others are trying to learn English as a second language as well (and English, in rudimentary form, may be the common language). None of that is the case for American children.

I suppose it’d be great if we started in elementary school here, but I had Spanish instruction in elementary school, and it was pretty basic and not ultimately very useful. Fluency requires something quite different than what elementary schools would do even if they offered foreign language instruction.

But, many of my kids’ friends are fluent in a second language — Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi. Even Greek. But all have learned those languages at home and at intensive after-school culture/language schools (the Asian ones also offer extra math instruction to compensate for our math curriculum). If you want truly multilingual kids, that’s probably what you’re going to have to do — I don’t think there’s much prospect of school language instruction doing the job even if it started early.

21

Dan S. 12.11.07 at 2:10 am

>>Cre, Seminole, Oglala, Cherokee, now those are >>American languages. English is a European one.

Whoa, now there’s a fatuous comment. I wonder what this was meant to accomplish.“

Well, they’re really hard to learn – in some cases, historically so even for native speakers . . .

22

djw 12.11.07 at 2:53 am

I clicked through with the thought “Well, that sounds like a pretty good idea to me, but Harry often has interesting and counterintutitive things to say about education, so his objection should be interesting….”

23

Joshua Holmes 12.11.07 at 3:17 am

Four years of high school French, three years of university French, and I can barely understand a news article in Le Monde. The French nightly news is completely out of the question.

slocum is right, though. I didn’t have anything interesting to read in French, and there was nothing to listen to in French. When the bell rang at the end of the 55 minute period, there was simply no other decent opportunity to put the language to work.

24

Randy Paul 12.11.07 at 3:42 am

Immersion is the key. Only one intermediate Portuguese language class, but 15 trips to Brazil, a native speaking spouse and no qualms about being corrected and I speak the language fluently.

25

Raghav 12.11.07 at 4:12 am

I learned English and Arabic at about the same time, as a young child. I am fluent in both.
But as for learning “foreign languages”—which I began to do in American schools, in the normal manner described above—I was exposed to Spanish as an adolescent, took four (4) years! of it, got straight A’s, and I was never close to fluent in the language.

I think a lot of this is that schools suck at teaching languages, even to the few students who want to learn. Children, on the other hand, have a lot of motivation both to learn a language and to emulate a certain accent: they need people to understand them in at least one language and their friends make fun of them if they talk funny. They’re also exposed to the language and get to practice all day, not just one period in high school. And yet, they still make plenty of mistakes; adults are simply more willing to overlook them.

With adults a foreign accent is seen as perfectly acceptable, even charming. It’s unsurprising that fewer adults manage to achieve a native accent.

A good tactic is to create motivation. I learned French less from high school classes than a burning desire to read Le petit Nicolas books. A few of my Bollywood-obsessed friends have picked up Hindi along the way. I don’t think the school system (beyond maybe a few hard-core immersion schools) really has much to do with it.

26

Ragout 12.11.07 at 4:37 am

Cre, Seminole, Oglala, Cherokee, now those are American languages.

Another thing that makes this comment fatuous is that Seminole and Oglala aren’t languages. The Oglala Sioux spoke Lakota and the Seminole spoke various languages such as Creek and English.

And while we’re at it, the Cherokee and Seminole were famous for intermarrying with people of European and African descent. The great Cherokee chief John Hull was mainly of Scottish descent and spoke English better than Cherokee.

I guess my point is, if you’re going to speak up for the Native Americans, you ought to know at least a little bit about them.

27

Tsmoss 12.11.07 at 5:28 am

Raghav: Are you a fan of Zompist, by any chance?

28

joejoejoe 12.11.07 at 7:19 am

Kids learn language best at the same age where ‘Ed Balls’ is a hilarious name.

29

reason 12.11.07 at 8:09 am

I think immersion in the language is important (developing an “ear” by listening to the radio in the language in question can be useful.

But the person who said “which” language must be kidding from a USA perspective. For most of you it must clearly be spanish, apart from those near quebec. Try being an Australian and ask “which” language. Then it is hard (Chinese or Indonesian perhaps?).

30

Ville 12.11.07 at 8:49 am

Finns start english at third grade. It does no harm to children to learn foreign languages early.

31

Scott Martens 12.11.07 at 9:15 am

Early language education does no discernable harm. It’s just that it’s also unclear that it does much good. Classroom education by itself rarely produces real fluency, and in those rare cases where it does, the students are almost without exception highly motivated adults. That child immersed in more than one language acquires those languages without later remembering how hard it was is not an indicator that early language education in classrooms will produce the same effect.

If people are told that a foreign language will be a tacit or explicit requirement for any kind of serious university education or important position in business, then are offered chances to actually use the language outside the classroom, then early education might make a difference. As it stands… I studied French from kindergarten onwards, and still couldn’t do anything of use in it until I spent a year living France. I might well have had the same result if I had simply started in my late teens.

Ban dubbing, and force channels to carry a quota of foreign language TV with subtitles in prime time. Make radio stations carry a quota of foreign language pop music. Compel cinemas to give half of their theatre space to foreign language films with subtitles. If the UK really wanted to give Brits an incentive to learn foreign languages, it should press to have French and German declared the sole EU working languages, and campaign to have English forbidden in Brussels. Or, by far the most effective way to induce foreign language skills is to be invaded and colonized by a hegemonic power that believes God or evolution has given it a mandate to civilize you.

None of that will ever happen, but if it did, it would reflect the situation in those countries where foreign language skills are high.

32

maidhc 12.11.07 at 9:50 am

I have to disagree with what some people have said.

I had 6 years of school French with virtually no occasion to use it outside the classroom. Then I went about 30 years with more or less no contact with French at all.

Then I went to France. It was very challenging for about a week and then things started to come back. Admittedly my accent is horrible and my grammar very weak, but I was able to deal with people and get along entirely in French. Of course I wasn’t discussing philosophy, but I managed to handle everyday things reasonably competently.

So I have to admit that those very boring high school French drills were actually of some value after all.

33

abb1 12.11.07 at 10:11 am

@30, Ban dubbing, and force channels to carry a quota of foreign language TV with subtitles in prime time.

I don’t think you can actually ban dubbing, but yeah, in countries where movies are run with subtitles people understand English, and I suspect probably without making a conscientious effort to learn it.

But that’s only good for learning English.

34

bad Jim 12.11.07 at 10:56 am

I have to admit that my high school Spanish isn’t good enough to let me understand much of what I overhear in Southern California, and that my college German didn’t equip me to get through a newspaper article without a dictionary on my lap. I do, however, find that my weak command of both languages makes me more comfortable and capable in Barcelona and Vienna than I am in Paris or Venice (or Copenhagen or Prague).

Early education is probably useful. My brother’s kids got a good dose of language exposure in preschool. I remember testing his youngest and finding she could count to ten in every language I tried (including Japanese – there was this song and it only went up to five, never mind). They’ve all wound up better than their father, who has next to no language skills, but I’m not at all sure that they’re any better than I am, who first got exposed at 11.

It’s fun to watch German kids trying to make themselves understood in Rome using English, and then Italians trying to make themselves understood in Berlin using English. Then, not everyone in California understands my English either.

35

Tom Womack 12.11.07 at 11:56 am

I went to a school which did push foreign languages early; French and Latin from age 7, German from age 10, Russian from age 14.

I don’t know if Russian is intrinsically more difficult, or if my 14-year-old brain was much less plastic than an earlier one, but I’ve ended up reasonably fluent in French and German, and can just barely say ‘no! that is very expensive! I will find another taxi!’ in Russian.

36

GreatZamfir 12.11.07 at 12:12 pm

32. Why would subtitles only work for English? The rest of the world makes loads of television shows and movies, and almost none are shown on Enlgish television, because dubbing is expensive and people will assume that every subtitled program is ‘imported culture for other poeple than me’, and they will not watch it. I don’t know about the US, but I doubt it is any better there.

The main argument people to learn another language is not just to communicate with others. It is also to make people aware of the rest of the world, to make them aware how much can be lost in translation, that people speaking a language foreign to them are not as articulate as they would be in their own, even when superficially they appear to have mastered the foreign language.

For these aspects the specific language to learn is of secondary importance. Some people learn Latin. But it is important do learn at least one.

In my experience, exactly these issues can make native English speakers rather naive when dealing with people who do not speak fluent English. I have often encountered groups of different nationalities where everyone is talking to each other, in English, while the native English speakers, be they English, American or Australian, are completely lost and can only speak to each other. When they try to talk to others, they speak too fast and use too much vocabulary, and are not understood. When they listen, they are not aware enough of the gaps in the other’s English skills, and conclude too easily the other has nothing to say.

These things can’t be to the advantage of the English speakers.

37

Ingrid 12.11.07 at 12:44 pm

I fullheartedly second what greatzamfir writes. People who have never had to survive in another language have no clue of what it means for others to do so, and often have no clue of what *they* can do to help other people who make an effort to speak in their langauge (such as speaking slower, avoiding the use of slang or difficult words, etc.).

Anyone who wants to be a worldcitizen should feel obliged to learn another language at least to intermediate level, partly for these reasons, and partly also because it will create more respect for those who learn and communicate in foreign languages — that is, those who work hard every day to make communication across language groups possible. But then, I’m Flemish and there are few tribes in the world for whom language is more of a political issue than the Flemings…

38

abb1 12.11.07 at 1:05 pm

The rest of the world makes loads of television shows and movies…

Yes, but few of them are made for foreign consumption. Bollywood is probably distant second, with Latin American soap operas (whoever produces them) the third; the US entertainment industry obviously dominates, far and beyond.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find Spanish, French, Italian or German shows and movies, all I’m saying is that without a conscientious effort you probably are not going to be exposed to many of them.

39

Edis 12.11.07 at 1:32 pm

One theory to explain why French became the ‘Language of Diplomacy’ at the start of the 18th century is that French was really the only living ‘foreign language’ that the English could muster. So the golden age of French language infulence came about because of the Goddams inadequacies.

The preceeding main diplomatic rival was apparently Italian, not least because this was the traditional way of comunicating with diplomats from the Ottoman Empire.

40

Praisegod Barebones 12.11.07 at 1:47 pm

Didn’t the Brits try this once before in the 1970’s and give up? (Probably because of the lack of primary school teachers with the necessary competence in a foreign language). Isn’t this likely to happen again?

41

GreatZamfir 12.11.07 at 1:58 pm

(37.) But American shows and movies are hardly made for export either. I guess only British tv shows really have export to other countries in mind during production. I think this is a typical chicken and egg topic: you can’t watch foreign shows in the US because they would have to be subtitled, and the viewers don’t watch subtitled shows because they are not used to it.

But subtitles are, in my opinion, a red herring when it comes to learning languages. Foreign language tv is only understandable when you have already a reasonable grip on the language. It is not going to help people who have no other connection with the language.

42

abb1 12.11.07 at 2:51 pm

But American shows and movies are hardly made for export either.

But they are, they are. Often they sell more abroad than domestically. That’s not by chance.

For example:
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=titanic.htm
Domestic: $600,788,188 32.6%
Foreign: $1,244,246,000 67.4%

43

Raghav 12.11.07 at 2:52 pm

Raghav: Are you a fan of Zompist, by any chance?

Yes! But my comments on the critical period are drawn from various places, including Singleton’s book and In Other Words by Bialystok and Hakuta.

44

christine 12.11.07 at 3:08 pm

Not sure that learning another language is necessarily helpful in understanding the struggles of others to communicate. Greatzamfir’s example had everyone speaking English. But from my experience, the ‘thoughtfulness’ rather dies out when an English speaker is trying to communicate in another language. Go to Quebec and try speaking in French: you don’t get much help. At best (esp if you can prove you’re not Canadian), the speaker simply switches to English. My in-laws, eg, pretty much refuse to understand me when I try to speak French. I’ve heard similar stories from friends traveling around Europe.

Absolutely agree on TV being unhelpful. I can understand conversations in French well enough, but TV is a nightmare. Except for the French CBC Olympics coverage, which is worth the effort since it’s thousands of times better than the English. And Dora the Explorer in French/English.

45

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.11.07 at 3:10 pm

“A much better idea is to wait until the children are 14 or so. That way you can be sure that most will never actually learn the language in question, and be pretty sure that they will have an unpleasant time while not learning it. That’s what we try to do here in America”

All furreigners can speak English. That’s why you have to shout at them to show you’re not fooled.

“The manner of teaching is very important though. Not just two hours in the week in a classroom, but really submerge in the language.”

Yup. In fact, some school districts are turning a liability (lots of non-native English speakers) into an asset (mix native English and non-native English speakers into the same class, and create an immersion program). San Francisco is using immersion programs to hang on to its upper middle class parents.

[Within a four-mile radius of my house, I have the choice of seven-odd Spanish immersion programs, one Korean immersion, one Japanese ‘enrichment’ [not quite immersion], two Cantonese immersion, and two Mandarian immersion programs in public elementary schools. There’s also some private immersion programs, though not as many.]

46

robertdfeinman 12.11.07 at 3:50 pm

It is so much better to pontificate than to look at evidence. There are many French immersion schools in Canada, the English speaking kids come out bi-lingual.

Why not ask them why it works?

47

GreatZamfir 12.11.07 at 4:15 pm

But from my experience, the ‘thoughtfulness’ rather dies out when an English speaker is trying to communicate in another language.

I don’t know if learning another language is going to make you more thoughtful or helpful to speakers trying to speak your language. I suspect it does, but it was not the point I was trying to make. I’m not saying English-speakers should learn another language for the benefit of non-native speakers of English, but for their own benefit.

In my experience, English-speakers are far below average when it comes to communicating with people who speak mediocre or no English. On their home grounds, or in situations where English is the official language, this can be annoying for the others, but as you mention, this is not unique to English-speakers. But when they move to situations where English is not the standard, they run into trouble fast. In my experience, quicker than speakers of French or German, and definitely much quicker than speakers of small languages, like Czech or Dutch or Swedish.

I don’t expect people to learn a language for the benefit of others. It is in their own interest to be able to communicate better with foreigners, and I think learning a foreign language is a great help with this, even when talking to people who speak a completely different language than the one you learned

48

Badger 12.11.07 at 4:18 pm

A lot of times people don’t know they’re pontificating. That’s another area where learning a language as an adult gives you unexpected skills, such as navigating the treacherous borderland where crushing platitudes morph into commonplace pontification and then propaganda, finally ending up in extreme cases as political “science”….

49

Scott Martens 12.11.07 at 4:29 pm

Abb, when American TV & film is made specifically for foreign consumption, it is… frankly, crap. I realized this watching Flemish TV, where the US shows shown are either cheap crap, The Simpsons, or stuff where I end up having to explain things to Flemings. Local comprehension of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, for instance, is really poor. But even Desperate Housewives translates poorly. And Lost… ok, no one understands Lost, so that shouldn’t count. And which American films make the most abroad? Those tend to be the plot-free special effects action films.

Japan, India, China, even Latin America to a significant degree have had some success in selling TV and film internationally, even in American markets, and even subtitled. On pure quality of writing and acting, I’d say that Germany and Quebec seem competitive to me, but have no apparent access to anglophone world distribution, except Quebec to some degree within Canada. France… ok, they make crap TV and French film has fallen far from its peak. But I’d still put some brain-rotting Luc Besson thriller up against Roland Emmerich any day. In terms of music, I suspect that popular French and German music is no more incomprehensible to American audiences than American rap is to European ones.

Robert Feinman: (@45) alas, despite much publicity and myth and a lot of desperate wishing it was so, Canadian French immersion education does not, in fact, on the whole, work. Immersion students outside areas with active francophone populations do not generally emerge with good enough French to pass Quebec university entrance exams. (And in my day, the UdM entrance exam was pretty easy.)

This is not terribly shocking. You take a bunch of English speaking kids and put them together with no francophones except their teachers (not all of whom are themselves native speakers), and no more motivation than average school kids, and it’s not too surprising when the results are mediocre. The anglos I knew who attended Quebec universities successfully were all either Anglo-Quebecois (and thus people living in at least partially francophone contexts outside of school) and graduates of ordinary English language schools who had either shown talent for French, or who were personally strongly motivated.

San Francisco’s plan – mixing immigrant kids and anglos – is a much better approach than the Canadian way. This kind of immigrant mixed bilingual education was pioneered in – of all places – Texas under George W. Bush. (Since it was a good idea, I presume it wasn’t *his* idea.)

50

novakant 12.11.07 at 6:23 pm

Yes, but few of them are made for foreign consumption.

Well, they don’t really need to be made for foreign consumption, as an example I give you Derrick which is as German as it gets, yet:

The series gained enormous popularity and was aired in more than 100 countries worldwide. In fact, there have only been a few areas around the world where Derrick has not penetrated, and the two protagonists long ago established for themselves a place in television history.

People love British films mainly for their Britishness as the big international success of the Richard Curtis or Ivory/Merchant films shows. French intellectual left-wing art house types have had a prolonged love affair with classic and often rather reactionary US cinema and, perhaps less surprisingly, adore Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog precisely for their utter Germanness. Films like Y tu mamá también, Amores Perros and City of God have proven that even US audiences can be won over
to a certain extent by rather exotic foreign fare.

So while I agree that American pop cultural hegemony is currently and for the foreseeable future undeniably dominant and also that the US market is particularly hard to penetrate for reasons outlined by others above, it would be wrong for foreign content providers to try to beat them at their own game, because they can only fail. If you want to put a dent into it, play to your strengths and rely on your own national myths and stereotypes.

51

abb1 12.11.07 at 6:30 pm

I dunno, Scott, all I know is that poster ads in any DVD-rentals in Europe are exactly the same as in any Blockbuster back in the states. And that I can watch most of US-made hospital-soap, shoot-em-up-soap, supernatural-soap, and traditional soap TV stuff on local channels. Even, amazingly, a courtroom-soap like Boston Legal. I have to assume it’s not a coincidence.

52

Randy Paul 12.11.07 at 7:42 pm

I routinely watch the Sony Channel when I’m in Brazil. I see shows like Seinfeld and Fraser in English with Portuguese subtitles. It has enhanced my Portuguese, especially the slang.

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Hattie 12.11.07 at 9:09 pm

I learned a lot of German watching “Die Leute von der Shihloh Ranch”
I have some friends who were totally hooked on Derrick and got tapes of it sent to them after they returned to the U.S.
Language teaching is a catastrophe in this country and always has been.

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a 12.11.07 at 9:16 pm

“I guess only British tv shows really have export to other countries in mind during production.” Doesn’t anyone have kids? Or should I say kids who watch TV? The Japanese surely think about exporting to other countries. Otherwise, one would have to say that their success is due to the intrinsic quality of their shows.

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c.l. ball 12.12.07 at 1:28 am

I thought the whole point of US foreign language instruction was to convince us that foreign languages are for foreign people. Since the rest of the world teaches everyone English, what’s the point in us Anglo-phones learning their languages. We’ll end up talking past each other.

This way we have more time to teach gym and study hall in US schools. These are skills you can’t get elsewhere.

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GreatZamfir 12.12.07 at 1:53 pm

And that I can watch most of US-made hospital-soap, shoot-em-up-soap, supernatural-soap, and traditional soap TV stuff on local channels.Even, amazingly, a courtroom-soap like Boston Legal. I have to assume it’s not a coincidence.

You are missing two important things here. First: American series are sold relatively cheap in other countries, with production values that cannot be matched at local budgets. The budget per episode of Desperate Housewives is more than that of succesful Dutch cinema movies. I can assure you that parts of DH are completely weird to Dutch audiences, but even a big-budget local production looks poor in comparison, with less polished writing, and it is just easier and cheaper to buy an off-the-shelf foreign series.

The second thing is that audiences are to some extend used to American culture, or at least the subsections used in TV and movies. Courtroom drama is fundamentally strange to countries without a jury system, but after years of ‘Law and order’ and John Grisham you know enough of the American system to understand the basics.
Even stranger are high school comedies. In most European countries, schools do not have sports teams, cheerleaders, proms or prom queens. The students are allowed to drink, not to drive cars and cannot be rejected for colleges. Dutch doesn’t even have a translation for ‘dating’.
The miracle that people still watch American high school movies is not caused by their universal appeal, let alone that their writers had export in mind when writing. It’s simply years of training, so that Europeans know a lot about the cliche version of Aemrican high school life ( which I suppose might have little to do with reality).

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blah 12.12.07 at 5:52 pm

one thing that has almost disappeared from secondary level foreign languages is literature, and with it, i would say, much of the motivation to study the language. students realise that they are never going to be fluent, or even half-decent, speakers of the language, but some at least would be stimulated by their lessons having more than just a functional aim. im pretty sure that it is now possible to do A level French without studying any literature whatsoever.

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Great Zamfir 12.12.07 at 6:33 pm

Good point, Blah! Probably applies to many countries

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KB 12.12.07 at 10:59 pm

Number 28 – I’m 25, and Ed Balls is still a hilarious name. This bodes well for my Danish lessons.

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vanya 12.14.07 at 2:42 pm

It’s no great secret why for decades now Americans and Brits seem unable to learn foreign languages – they just don’t need to, and most people will not really learn a foreign language unless they need to. Russians, Germans, and even the French, have a very strong motivation to learn English – in Europe knowledge of English is essential to success in business, advertising, science, almost any stable well-paying career you can think of. Americans have no similar motivation to learn Russian, or even Chinese. Unless you are planning to move abroad, there is just no compelling practical reason for an English speaker to learn a foreign language. Spend months and months of your life learning a language you might use 2 or 3 times on 2 week tourist trips? Most people can’t even be bothered to read decent literature in English so unfortunately the “opening the door to great literature” argument doesn’t usually wash. And English speakers are already drowning in entertainment options in their native languages as it is. I agree 100% that learning a foreign language is enriching, satisying, and makes you a better person. But so is learning to play a musical instrument, or learning how to paint. I think it’s time to admit that foreign language courses for everyone is really probably a waste of resources – illiteracy in math and science is really a far greater issue in the Anglosphere than poor language training.

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BegoniaBuzzkill 12.14.07 at 5:47 pm

Are you trying to put us translators out of business by suggesting that Americans actually learn other languages? This is an unfair labor practice.
Posted by Arthur Goldhammer

Ahh, Mr. Goldhammer, you would have a better case if you lobbied from K-Street and/or sued for “obstruction of business/income”.

Ignore the propaganda. Focus on what you see. LOL

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iskander 12.14.07 at 6:10 pm

Kind of late for this but here is my experience. I’m from Romania. I didn’t know any english till i was about 10 years old. Then we got cable and i started watching Cartoon Network. At first I didn’t understand a thing but after some time I started understanding. I don’t know how. I did have english classes but they dind’t do much good. Now , 13 years later, i can watch Snatch without subtitles. I studied franch for 11 years but i didn’t use it for nothing and now i can barley say hello( i can read newspapers and stuff like that but french is not that hard for a romanian speaker). The big difference was that i learned english as you learn a first language(hearing other people talk) and i learnd franch starting with grammar and things like that (i started studying franch at 8 years).
P.S most of my generation learned english this way.Now Cartoon Network si dubbed

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EFLguy 12.14.07 at 11:25 pm

My wife is Taiwanese and our 4 year old twins have grown up with her mother around much of the time. My wife and her mother speak Mandarin Chinese all the time… The twins however attend a daycare, and when it is just me and my wife with the twins we speak English only. (She spends an hour daily with her parents on MSN speaking Chinese in front of the twins.) And the twins attend a day care where English is the exclusive spoken language. At this point the twins are exclusively English speakers… I am curious how this fits in with some of the comments about the ease of early language acquisition.

This is quite simple. Language is best learned when used. Your children, based on your description above, use English, but they primarily listen to Chinese. I’m betting they understand Chinese spoken to them and respond appropriately (in English),no? If your wife and mother-in-law start ignoring the children unless they Chinese (nagging probably won’t get you far), for example, they’ll start learning to speak Chinese. You might have your wife start reading with the kids in Chinese, too.

You see the same for second generation kids in the US: they can understand the mother tongue but can’t speak it because they were not required to. When communicating, we take the easiest, i.e. most efficient route.

Cheers

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