Language choices

by Louise

The choice of foreign language comes up during discussion of academic choices. A lot of kids are taking Spanish. Their parents hope that they will be able to communicate with Spanish speakers in the U.S. There are a couple of issues though. The teaching of foreign languages, at the neighborhood schools (excludes language magnets or immersion programs) is not rigorous enough in my opinion. The languages are in many cases taught by non native speakers and the graduation requirement is only two years. It seems that the goal of being fluent in a language is not achieved. I am not sure if fluent in a language was ever the goal of the education system. I know some posters studied abroad during high school and college. What has been your experience as a student or as a parent ? Any language teachers among us who want to weigh in ?

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119 thoughts on “Language choices

  1. i took 4 years of Spanish in HS and was just shy of a minor in College. I wasn’t ever fluent. My opinion is you won’t be fluent unless you immerse yourself in it (travel or study abroad). And then if you don’t use it you will lose it.

  2. “My opinion is you won’t be fluent unless you immerse yourself in it (travel or study abroad). And then if you don’t use it you will lose it.”

    I agree. I used to be fluent in Japanese. I lived, studied, and worked there. Now I can barely say hello.

  3. I agree w/Wine. I was a French minor in college but didn’t study abroad so I wasn’t fluent. I could converse well enough and understand when other people were talking but I really had to still think about it. And now forget it, I don’t remember much. I think it’s great that they start studying a foreign language so early now, we didn’t start until 7th grade and DD started French in kindergarten.

  4. I took Spanish from MS through Junior year HS. Far from fluent. I didn’t have to take a college language requirement. If I did, I’d still be in the same boat. Unable to communicate.

    Cousins are in a Japanese immersion program. They seem to be thriving.

    I agree with everyone else – immersion is the way to go.

  5. Completely agree with Winemama. My HS Spanish teacher was not a native speaker. Lovely woman, but I did not retain much. My four years of HS Spanish got me out of needing to take a foreign language course in college, but I never became fluent. I also took Latin in HS and found that more helpful in understanding languages and words generally, also expanding my vocabulary and interest in history.

    Later I took Spanish lessons with a native speaker, more immersion style, and my ability improved quickly, when I stuck with it.

    I’ve tried again recently, using DuoLingo, but find it hard to keep up with. I’m not fluent enough to converse with DH and he’s not patient enough to speak to me in Spanish. He just switches to English.

  6. I have a coworker who has a Master’s Degree in French. I asked her to translate a French document and she had to decline on use it or lose it grounds.

  7. Seattle has a couple public elementary schools (K-5) that offer immersion programs. Half the day is in English and half the day is in either Spanish or Japanese. From talking with friends whose kids went through the programs, their kids were fluent around 4th grade. Once they reach middle school, they can still take language classes but only for one period a day. I’ll have to ask if they feel their fluency decreased.

    DD has been taking Spanish for 4 years and DS will start next year in middle school. His only other option was Japanese. I told DS that if he was extra motivated and willing to work extra hard, I would let him take Japanese – but he would have a head start with Spanish since he already knows the alphabet. He opted to take Spanish. His first choice was German (because his dream is to work for BMW someday) and he was sadly surprised to find out it’s not an option here.

  8. Spanish was started on me in 6th grade (no choice, therefore that syntax). Nothing written, all aural just like we all have learned our mother tongue. I was good at it and really liked it so I continued thru junior year of HS and then I went on a 6mo exchange program in Central America where I became pretty fluent. Came back took AP Spanish and two years of advanced language & literature in college and then spent my whole entire junior year in Spain taking classes in Spanish at the University, living with Spaniards. I really became fluent. Returning from Spain I took almost 2 years of French in one year…the only differences between the two are (some)vocabulary and pronunciation. But, hey, after that year I could talk to people in bars/cafes/shops in France and they could understand me.

    Since then I have learned enough Italian to argue (and win my point) with the Italian train guys. And in advance of what would be a 3-week business trip to Japan I developed a ~200 word vocabulary that helped me immensely and really impressed the Japanese business colleagues I was with for that time.

    Now I’m learning Portuguese which seems to be a blend of Spanish and French so I’m getting along pretty nicely.

    With that as background, I am clearly not the average parent of a kid in a HS foreign language class. I have been very impressed with some of my kids’ teachers (Latin, Spanish & Italian) and very distressed by others. The Latin teachers were all really good; the Italian teachers good, but stereotypically temperamental, about half the Spanish teachers know less, a lot less, than I do. And some of the Spanish teachers, one in particular, are just bad teachers.

    I believe the key goal of having kids take a foreign language is exposure to something that the students can then pursue if they want. As we all know, English-speaking monoglots can get by perfectly well here in the USA.

  9. Our university has a language requirement for the college of liberal arts, which is the only reason that the Romance language departments still exist. DS has a friend who majored in Arabic and Chinese and is now working for a national security agency; another friend fluent in several languages is working as a college consultant in China. Most other kids they know who had language majors or minors aren’t actually using them in their jobs.
    Many parents want their kids to learn Mandarin or Spanish to give them an edge in the job market. But why would employers hire Joe Smith who studied Mandarin in college when they can hire the first-generation Chinese kid who grew up speaking both Mandarin and English AND is fluent in the culture as well? Do your employers value fluency in another language?

  10. Seattle – in all likelihood most jobs with BMW will only require English. I work for a non US headquartered company and all business is conducted in English. There is zero need for me to understand any other language. There is a need for everyone to be more sensitive to culture and communication style. Part of the reason for an upcoming trip to Europe is to facilitate just this.

    I made a reference to Groundhog’s Day (the movie) the other day and my non-US colleague (located in the US) had never heard of it. Small stuff like this comes up All. The. Time. Sports references are the worst.

    I had the same experience when living in London. Yes we all speak English, but really I speak American.

  11. “Do your employers value fluency in another language?”
    Some have, but not on an ongoing basis. Mostly for small things like anon’s vignette above…translating something, or helping a visitor who does not speak English well at all.

  12. I was much better writing/reading Spanish than speaking and listening was the hardest (talk slowly please!)

    I liked reading Spanish so much I bought a copy of pride and prejudice in Spanish from amazon. It is out of print now and worth over $100

  13. In college a group of friends from Spanish class would go to a local Mexican restaurant and talk and order in Spanish (and drink margaritas, it was fun)

  14. did you see the picture of Trump yesterday for Cinco de Mayo with his taco bowl?

  15. Our district offers Italian, French, and Spanish. I wish they offered a non-Romance language. In any case, French is by far the least popular. My kids take French for the same reason that Italian is a really popular choice – it is a heritage language. As you guys know, they also have taken Chinese for years. The one thing I can tell you is, as bad as the quality of language instruction is in our school, it is far worse in the Chinese school. The Chinese schools mainly exist so that kids learn to write, so there is no focus on oral fluency. And let’s face it – there is a reason that Chinese students who come here to study are so appallingly bad at English – the Chinese are really BAD at language teaching because it breaks their pedagogical model. You can’t teach a ;language to a ton of neatly lined up students who are expected to never say anything in class.

  16. Cinco de Mayo is an American creation, but so is St. Patrick’s day. Both are fun.

    My kids are/have been/will take Spanish. If they stay in California, they will be severely handicapped without at least some degree of fluency. The language instruction is absolutely terrible. I am looking into Rosetta stone for the younger two to work on this summer.

  17. Interesting. I had a weird experience yesterday at the grocery store. The woman ahead of me in line had a brief conversation with the checkout person in Spanish, and I actually understood it. I guess probably from my residual French, but it was so weird feeling – I just understood them. Anyway, the woman ahead of me was buying corn tortillas, a brand that mainly the Hispanic population buys. The checkout lady, who is Central American of some type (she has worked there for years so I kind of know her), asked in Spanish “Oh, are you celebrating Cinco de Mayo”, and the woman buying the tortillas said “yes”. The checkout lady continued “Oh are you Mexican?” to which the reply was no, she was Honduran. Then the checkout lady wanted to know if she was making pupusas, and that she really like pupusas. It continued – the lady shopping said what she was putting in her pupusas, and then the checkout lady said she makes sopes which are really good.

    So I assumed from this that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated at least by some central Americans, at least ones who live in the NYC area.

  18. For those of you whose first language is not English, what has your approach been towards teaching your children your first language? Are they learning it? Is it an issue within your family if they are not?

  19. It’s a consolation to hear how others have also lost their fluency after not using the language for a while. That happened to me, but I believe I could fast regain much of the fluency if I immersed myself among Spanish speakers.

    I wanted my children to become fluent in Spanish. They both took it in school and our nanny spoke Spanish, but neither kid is now fluent although they understand quite a bit.

    After starting the Totebag 30-Day Challenge this month, I think I may do another challenge of doing Duolingo daily to see if I can get back in the groove with some Spanish language skills.

    I had heard that Cinco de Mayo was popularized here by beer companies, and ATM’s link says this:

    In the 1980s and 1990s, corporations (especially the alcohol and restaurant industries) began promoting Cinco de Mayo as a way to reach Hispanic consumers and sell products like tequila and beer.

  20. My oldest has two good friends, one of whom moved here from France two years ago not speaking a word of English (who barely has an accent now) and the other whose mother is Italian. The kids both seem to switch between languages very easily.

    My oldest also had a girl who moved here from China in her class this year and she was learning English very well until they moved another new girl from China into the same class mid-year (principal thought it would be comforting for them to be together). The teacher said that resulted in the first girl really regressing on her English and the two girls just conversing in Chinese all day so they ended up moving the 2nd Chinese student to a different class.

  21. My kids really suck at foreign languages, even at their young ages where it’s supposed to be the easiest to pick up (foreign languages begin in pre-k for us). It’s their kryptonite. So while pre-kids I would have said it was really important to me that our kids learn other languages, I’ve totally let this one go. I hope they do well enough to muddle through and check it off the requirements list.

  22. I love learning languages and have always had a knack for it. For DH on the other hand, it just does not compute. Our alma mater had a two semester language requirement and he ended up having to take Spanish during the summer at another institution because he was not doing well in Spanish 101. My oldest’s lowest grades are in French so she may have inherited DH’s language aptitude.

  23. I took French through HS and college but never got fluent as I never really used it outside of class. HS classes were with a non-native speaker, college with native speakers.

    Post-college, I spent a year in Spain working for a big multinational. I had never studied Spanish before I got on the plane & had never been to a Spanish-speaking country. Although the language of the office was primarily English since it was a US-based company with people from all over Europe, I left Spain fluent in Spanish. 15 years later remember very little. Enough to read the billboards in Hispanic neighborhoods.

    I’ve been using Duolingo to brush up on my French as well. Partially for fun, and partially because my current company is owned by a French conglomerate & I think it could be useful in the future in certain situations.

  24. My kids went to a Spanish immersion daycare from 12 weeks through pre-K. They don’t speak Spanish much at all, but they understand a lot. The immersion offering wasn’t our primary choice for picking the daycare, but I’m glad they had it. I don’t think they’ll retain a ton, but I’m hoping it’ll make learning languages easier as they get older.

    I took 4 years of French and 2 of Spanish in high school. I could read and write fine, but I struggled with speaking and listening. I had a terrible one week home stay with a family in France during high school that scared me off from doing a study abroad semester in college. I had to take 4 trimesters in college of a language, but I was never fluent.

  25. Both my kids understand the dialect that DH’s family speaks because their grandparents speak it and have lived with us. At first the GP’s thought that the kids couldn’t understand but then the kids would interject with English comments. When DS speaks a few words he speaks with an American accent and it sounds hilarious. We don’t insist on another language. If they are interested and are in a situation where fluency is required, they can take an intensive course and put their skills to use right away, otherwise over time they will loose whatever fluency they have. My friend took an intensive French course for two years while in college and became fluent enough to become a translator. Prior to that she had taken three years of high school French which focused on writing not oral fluency.

  26. I went to a language immersion camp as a kid to learn a heritage language. Run by Concordia College in Minnesota, it was one of a dozen or so camps meant to teach kids through immersion. About half the staff are native speakers, the other are Americans who are fluent – I think both types added to the experience. I loved it – we had pretend passports and we would pass through border control on arriving, they would change all our money. We ate traditional food and did traditional folk activities, as well as small group intense language instruction. Over the course of two weeks, we celebrated 4 or 5 important holidays as well. It wasn’t cheap (and it was on Grandma’s dime), but it was amazing. They now have several Asian languages and most European languages. They also have camps that specialize in various flavors of languages – I believe on Spanish camp is tied to Spain, one to Mexico/South America. Kids flew in from all over the country to go.

    We have no foreign language in our totebaggy elementary school. The kids get a little Spanish from the Au Pair, but that doesn’t work nearly as well as everyone imagines it could. I would like them learning a language, but I think the 45m 1-2 times per week enrichment classes seem like a lot of money with little results.

    I’ve looked into Mango (the kid program affiliated with Rosetta Stone) and know that a lot of homeschool kids use that. I’ve considered getting a subscription.

  27. I could speak German as a kid, but have totally forgotten it. I still can pronounce it nicely, so Germans assume I can speak German at first. I am told I have a very nice accent typical of the area around Cologne and Aachen

  28. I took French in HS and in college. The most fluent I was was after our 3-week exchange trip to France when I was a junior. I picked it right up (my host family went on vacation while I was there, which helped a lot!) but some of the kids in the class struggled a lot more with fluency and took every opportunity to speak English. Now I have lost most of it :( but I can still translate OK from written French. Our kids haven’t taken any languages yet – it is only offered at afterschool here starting in grade 3.

  29. I really, really wish I could understand Spanish. I know the landscaping guys were totally making fun of me this week about a dead tree. They’ve known me for years so they know I don’t understand them. The same thing happened at the teacher appreciation lunches this week. I asked for a large garbage can, and it never showed up. My friend asked in Spanish and it arrived in one minute. The faces, and the smiles of the people that I converse with daily would be different (IMHO) if I spoke Spanish.

    Fred, I think you have a thing for languages that is unusual. My college room mate was similar because she was fluent in English/Spanish, but she easily picked up French and Portugese in college. She just had a gift for it, but it is definitely my weak spot.

  30. “I made a reference to Groundhog’s Day (the movie) the other day and my non-US colleague (located in the US) had never heard of it. Small stuff like this comes up All. The. Time. Sports references are the worst. ”

    I have vague recollections of WWII movies in which very fluent English-speaking Germans infiltrated US forces, but were outed when they were asked things like, who’s the Yankees’ centerfielder?

    I’ve also heard stories that the Germans, while being able to understand English quite well, were stumped by the 442nd soldiers who spoke to each other in Pidgin English.

  31. I remember being in the Zurich train station once when backpacking thru Europe standing in the information line where, undoubtedly, everyone was asking one of the same 10 questions the people behind the desk got all day. But nonetheless I was truly impressed with the guy there who seemed to be able to answer in whatever language the tourist spoke. I realized that French, German, Italian and maybe even Romansh he learned in school as they all are Swiss national languages, but in addition I heard him speaking in Spanish, Dutch, Russian.

  32. “Fred, I think you have a thing for languages that is unusual. My college room mate was similar because she was fluent in English/Spanish, but she easily picked up French and Portugese in college. She just had a gift for it, but it is definitely my weak spot.”

    Perhaps there is such a thing as a gift for languages, but my theory is that it is much easier for a multilingual person to pick up another language that for a monolingual person to pick up a second language. My thinking is that a monolingual people will think of things in terms of their first language and have to adapt to different constructs in the other language, while multilingual people won’t be so locked into the constructs of a certain language.

  33. and, the other part, Finn, is that once I learned Spanish and had gotten over the fear of mispronouncing something / butchering the language either in class or on the street I would just charge ahead knowing only the specific rudiments of French, Italian or whatever but also knowing, especially for Romance languages, that the syntax was essentially the same and (probably) the noun was similar to another language’s. I think that fear of failure/sounding stupid stops a lot of people.

  34. ” I think that fear of failure/sounding stupid stops a lot of people.”

    Totally agree. I made one really embarrassing (now funny) mistake in speaking with my husband. He shared it with his family, and my efforts to speak to them in that language died.

    Now I wish I knew more so when they switch out of English I understand more, or so DH and I can talk privately without the kids understanding.

  35. Is one reason so many people in Europe are multilingual because many of the European languages are so similar?

    What language(s) is (are) most similar to English? At my kids’ school, of the languages taught there, I think the (weak) consensus is that Spanish is the most like English and the easiest for a purely monolingual person.

  36. “Now I wish I knew more so when they switch out of English I understand more”

    One of my pet peeves is when some people in a social situation, like around a dining table, start to speak in another language among themselves. I mean another language that others don’t understand. I think it’s rude. These people speak English fluently, so it seems to me they want to say something that the rest of us won’t understand.

    ” I think that fear of failure/sounding stupid stops a lot of people.”

    Yes. I used to get in the “zone” of not caring about mistakes and pushing myself to speak Spanish in social situations, which all helped improve my fluency. A little alcohol may have also helped . . .

  37. “Is one reason so many people in Europe are multilingual because many of the European languages are so similar?”

    I think it’s more that they have more chances to use other languages.

  38. ” I think that fear of failure/sounding stupid stops a lot of people.”

    I went to Quebec a few years ago, and it definitely kept me from wanting to even try speaking French to anyone beyond hello, goodbye and thank you.

    Ada – I begged to be able to go to the Concordia program when I was younger, but it was not in the budget. Or to be more precise – my parents said that they would only pay half, and I didn’t want to spend all of my PT job money on the camp instead of the clothes that they also wouldn’t pay for. Same thing with the HS trip to France.

  39. “One of my pet peeves is when some people in a social situation, like around a dining table, start to speak in another language among themselves. I mean another language that others don’t understand. I think it’s rude. These people speak English fluently, so it seems to me they want to say something that the rest of us won’t understand.”

    I used to get really annoyed by this but I’ve gotten accustomed to it. Sometimes its just easier to converse in your native tongue with your family. DH rarely speaks his native tongue at home and I think he misses it.

  40. I think that Europeans are multilingual because they have to be. Americans would be multilingual too if the people in each state spoke a different language.

    There are lots of great reasons to learn other languages, but I’m still not convinced that that even fluency, much less the mastery typical after several college semesters, adds very much to the resume. Perhaps it might be better if colleges focused on turning out graduates who are fluent in standard, grammatically correct English before trying to make them multilingual.

  41. Whereas the Chinese are like us – they don’t bother to learn other languages. It is still really hard to find English speakers in much of China. There is a push for everyone to learn standard Mandarin, but lots of older people don’t – they speak Cantonese or Shanghainese. That is why I think it can be useful to learn some Chinese. It is hard to travel much there without having some passing familiarity. And businesspeople would do better if they didn’t have to completely rely on translators. I have heard that a lot doesn’t get translated well

  42. Dutch is the closest major language to English. Actually, Frisian is closer still, but it is definitely not a major language! Dutch is so close it is amazing. My DH spent a lot of time in the Netherlands as a grad student, and can still get by in Dutch so I have become aware of how close they are.

  43. Coc – I don’t get offended if people switch to languages I don’t understand.
    I venture into ethnic stores where people speak mostly Spanish, Vietnamese, Portuguese and will quite happily inspect the produce, ask in English or point to what I want and I do fine. Sometimes, they ask if I know what I am buying….

  44. “I think that fear of failure/sounding stupid stops a lot of people.”

    3 yrs of HS French, 4 trimesters of college French, semester in France. A month in, I could understand everything anyone said, but I could. not. speak. Then one night we went to the bar, and after half a carafe of wine, I was fluent.

    So, yeah.

    ITA about Dutch! I remember being on a train once and overhearing this woman a seat or two away, and just sort of assuming she was speaking English. But after 15-20 mins, I realized I couldn’t understand one single word. The accents, the syntax, everything just sounded like English, except the actual words were gibberish. Weirdest feeling ever. I finally figured out it must be Dutch (or maybe Frisian, who knows?).

  45. I had no idea about the close relationship between Dutch and English – interesting!

  46. “I’m not fluent enough to converse with DH and he’s not patient enough to speak to me in Spanish. He just switches to English.”

    That’s not very nice of him. The two of you could start with just Spanish words in English sentences, add a few Spanish sentences….

    Perhaps Spanish TV might help, especially if you, like I (and perhaps others here), find yourself increasingly talking (yelling?) back to your TV.

  47. “the close relationship between Dutch and English”

    I wonder if that had anything to do with the Pilgrims moving there before sailing to MA.

  48. “The Chinese schools mainly exist so that kids learn to write, so there is no focus on oral fluency. ”

    I’ve heard that’s pretty common in the afterschool/weekend language schools here. Most of those schools target the kids of expats, so the assumption is the students already know how to speak and understand the language, so the focus is on reading and writing, sometimes so the kids won’t be so far behind in their mother tongue when they return.

    My recollection of my early school years are similar. In first grade, the focus was on the alphabet, then reading and writing. I don’t remember being taught to speak or understand English, other than when we were introduced to new words.

  49. “My kids went to a Spanish immersion daycare from 12 weeks through pre-K. They don’t speak Spanish much at all, but they understand a lot….I don’t think they’ll retain a ton, but I’m hoping it’ll make learning languages easier as they get older.”

    I have no doubt that they will have an easier time learning Spanish than their totally monolingual peers. In particular, I think they will have an easier time with pronunciations if their immersion program included a lot of native speakers.

    It was not until I spent a lot of time on the continent that I realized I had not known how to properly pronounce a lot of Spanish words and names. In CA, many of the news readers and reporters are bilingual, and they pronounce the Spanish names properly– it was quite jarring at first, hearing them speak English with a perfect mainland accent, then switching to Spanish for some proper nouns, and switching back and forth.

    E.g., I’d grown up thinking Chile was pronounced like chilly, only to find out later that is an Americanized mispronunciation.

    I think that due mainly to my lack of exposure as a kid, I won’t ever be able to speak Spanish without an accent. Your kids’ exposure at young ages may allow them to speak Spanish without an American accent.

  50. I would prefer my kids learn to code. I am sure they will spend all of their lives within 3 feet of a chip running software. I am not sure they will leave the US in a significant way, and have no way to pick which language they should learn.

  51. The various language podcasts and streams of foreign radio / tv have been a real help for regaining my ear. I still listen to RFI’s Journal en Francais Facile and (not RFI) One Thing in a French Day as part of my regular podcast mix. You can also livestream RFI through an app but it’s been a long time since I’ve done that. More rarely I watch the TV France programs on YouTube — they have several channels. I like the Des Racines et des Ailes show and also find it interesting that such a colloquial phrase shows up in both languages.

    The high school French program is meh. She doesn’t push them hard, and my son doesn’t push himself either, so unless I start instituting a French-only time of day (and it’s hard enough to get a teen boy to talk in English) he’s not getting anything permanent. Maybe when my daughter starts next year that’ll push him more.

    My youngest isn’t taking anything currently, except for supposedly trying to learn Spanish (the Mexico fascination again). Over the summer I want him to brush up on his written Japanese because I’m counting on him to read the signs in places with no romanji. Otherwise all I can do is memorize the characters for man / woman (bathroom).

  52. “I would like them learning a language, but I think the 45m 1-2 times per week enrichment classes seem like a lot of money with little results.”

    My theory is that exposure is the key when kids are very young. Find some kiddie videos in the language you want them to learn, and let them watch them over and over again. Or if there are TV shows in that language, find some they like and let them watch those. Recordings of kiddie songs in that language can be treated similarly. That may not teach them the language, but will set them up to pick it up more quickly and easily, with better pronunciation, if and when they decide to learn it.

  53. “My youngest isn’t taking anything currently, except for supposedly trying to learn Spanish (the Mexico fascination again).”

    I would totally encourage him while he has the interest.

    I wish my kids’ school taught Korean. DD is hooked on Korean soaps now, so if she were concurrently taking Korean in school, she’d have a lot of motivation to learn it, which is more than half the battle.

    Anyone know of a good self-study Korean program? Unless she gets a summer job, she’ll have a lot of free time this summer. I should encourage her to follow her passion and learn Korean.

  54. “Perhaps it might be better if colleges focused on turning out graduates who are fluent in standard, grammatically correct English before trying to make them multilingual.”

    While I agree, I’ve also observed that my kids’ understanding of English grammar is much better after taking Latin.

  55. Sky,

    That is hilarious! I love the pillow fort. I never ask for anything unusual. I don’t even let them do turn down as I was told someone has to stay late to do it.

  56. I just checked the weather forecast for Sunday to see if I need a back up plan for my BBQ. I could never live in Seattle or Portland. Solid week of rain, drizzle, clouds and no sun is the pits. I even turned my heat back on a few nights this week. If this is what it’s like to live in Seattle or Portland, I could never live there.

    I think I’m headed to Costco tomorrow for plan b. Happy Mothers Day!!

  57. I have an exchange student living with me for the semester. She arrived speaking English fairly well. It has been interesting over the last few months to see her English improve and her accent almost disappear. Having an exchange student has been a great experience. I would highly recommend it.

  58. I am not sure they will leave the US in a significant way, and have no way to pick which language they should learn.

    Spanish is very handy to know within the U.S. Working in healthcare, it would help me out a bit if I knew it because I get some patients who don’t speak English very well, if at all.

  59. “Spanish is very handy to know within the U.S.”

    I think PTM would concur.

  60. Sheep, what is the native language of your exchange student? Have you had a chance to learn from her?

    We had an exchange student for about a week last fall. He spoke the same language DS is studying now, so they’d switch back and forth, and they both benefited. Switching back and forth was especially helpful when one of them wasn’t quite sure how to say something in his non-native language.

  61. Finn- I would look at Mango. It’s a subscription service, so there’s very little upfront cost. They offer Korean, and almost any other language you could want to learn.

  62. Finn,
    I agree that Latin can be extremely useful for the study of English and other languages. Our kids went to a school that required 4 years of Latin and only 2 years of a modern language, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to defend that program to other parents, both inside and outside the school. An amazing number of parents, who seem to have forgotten every bit of the Spanish/French/German they themselves studied in school, are nevertheless convinced that their children will be shortchanged if they can’t check off four years of a modern language on their college applications.
    I tried without success to convince the school to drop the modern languages completely and add 2 years of Greek to the 4 years of Latin. Oldest DS had that program at his DC school and loved it, and after reading hundreds of college applications, I didn’t see a single one with credits in Greek. If you want your child’s application to stand out, that is definitely one way. (And the humanities majors who are over-represented in many admissions offices will be duly impressed.)

  63. DS ended up taking Latin. He was luke warm to Spanish (he had it in elementary school) and in French he showed no interest. If it were up to him one language is enough.
    He does like knowing the roots of words. He has a good teacher who is demanding. All in all a good year and he’ll stay with it.

  64. I maintain my previous opinion that Latin is good for understanding language structure and other languages are good for communicating with other people. Mr WCE started learning about Hebrew during his trips to Israel, communicates passably with the German technicians/casual citizens with his high school German (most of the engineers have English better than his German) and will probably travel to Spain periodically. He has never studied Spanish.

    A friend who has lived in US, Spain, Italy and Switzerland and is fluent in Spanish, English, Italy and passable in German and French lived in Europe for the first decade she had kids. She observed that her biological children gain (and regain) fluency easily. Her adopted children struggle with language and never regained the language fluency they once had when they lived overseas.

    I share Finn’s view that peer group is important. I hated Spanish because I was bored and told my guidance counselor that I didn’t care if it limited my college options to quit, because if I had to endure another year that was 90% review of the bloody obvious, I would go out of my ever-lovin’ mind. I think I would have liked foreign language quite a bit otherwise. Because there are no standardized curricula for foreign language, history, social studies, geography, etc., these classes tend to be slow in working class schools, in contrast to math/science, which have a more defined curriculum (quadratic equation, logarithms, etc.) which has to be covered.

  65. “I could never live in Seattle or Portland. Solid week of rain, drizzle, clouds and no sun is the pits.”

    ITA. I have been staring at weeks of rain here. The only times it got sunny here, I had trips out of state (including to Austin immediately before the giant Houston deluge).

    Last night, I wore my winter coat to DS’s baseball game and was cold the whole time. I find it hard to believe that in two weeks, it will be our anniversary, and the day we got married, it was 104. I am ready for at least 70. Please.

  66. I had 2-3 years of high school Spanish taught in the accent of my state, so my version of spoken Spanish is not particularly recognizable to a native speaker. However, 30 years later I can still read it and understand what i’m reading, and it was enough that I could help my daughter with Latin. Both of my kids took the required two years of language in high school, Spanish for both, and they are ridiculously incompetent in it. She has a friend that went to the Culinary Institute in New York, and he made her a cake for her birthday. What kind of cake? Don’t know -something French. The next week I found out it was a tres leches cake. Two years of Spanish and she could not recognize tres leches as being spanish words. As long as you pursue a Bachelors of Science, the two years of high school language meets the language requirement for college here.

    My employer has outsourced a lot of finance work to a couple of Spanish speaking locations, so it would be a little helpful to them if I were more fluent. When I am forwarded emails written in Spanish or even Portuguese, I am able to understand well enough to not have to ask for help with translation. I do speak English-as-a-second-language well, and have learned to not use any euphemisms or cultural references, as ATM mentioned above.

    On a whiny note – noticed that the A/C quit working around 6 tonight, and of course most places closed at 5. I found a company owned by a guy in the neighborhood, and when he found out where we live is sending a guy out in the morning. I was up sick most of last night, so was looking forward to sleep tonight with a ridiculous amount of anticipation. I think I’m going to send one of the kids to the couch and sleep in one of their beds upstairs (where the A/C works fine).

  67. Spanish is very handy to know within the U.S. Working in healthcare, it would help me out a bit if I knew it because I get some patients who don’t speak English very well, if at all.

    The thing about healthcare is that you are required to have an interpreter. I know that rule gets broken all the time. I speak decent Spanish (I say that I speak the kind of Spanish that inspires people to speak English – so many of my patients start speaking English after they listen to me explain a few things to them). It is considered a right to be spoken to in your own language when you are seeking health care – which means that a physician must provide quality interpreters for all interactions (funded by the physician, not the patient). So, my crappy Spanish just hinders my patients exercising their rights. Knowing a little is worse than knowning none.

    (To be honest, I usually use a phone interpreter for important interaction – explaining results, discharge, sometimes history. But, they are treated to my poor use of the subjunctive when I inquire if the pain meds are working).

    For more information: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Courts have interpreted that to mean that all health-care providers that accept federal funds — because they serve Medicare and Medicaid recipients, for example — must take steps to ensure that their services are accessible to people who don’t speak English well, according to the National Health Law Program, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income and underserved people.

    And if you really want to read more: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111066555

  68. Ada, if you can speak the language well enough, you don’t need an interpreter. The providers I know who speak Spanish have a much easier time than those of us who have to use interpreters.

  69. I studied Spanish in middle school and high school, and then continued into Spanish literature in college. Ultimately, a year in Spain was what got me to cross from “can read and write” to fluency. I’ve lost a lot of it over the years, but I’ve retained more than I’d think. I periodically have done some refreshing with Duolingo, which has the virtue of being quick and fairly fun as a form of practice. In my line of work, being conversational in Spanish has been helpful and valued. While I will still use a translator for legal documents, most clients seem to appreciate not needing to delay to deal with interpreters in order to discuss basic issues.

    My kids have had some exposure to native Spanish speakers, but not as much as I’d like. Our district has an immersion program that is well loved by parents, but we didn’t end up going that route. (And entrance is by lottery at any rate!)

  70. Don’t requirements to provide services in native language inevitably end up leaving some people out, though — I mean, isn’t it limited to languages a fair number of people in the region speak? I know the state will provide translation for court / voting rights / etc. into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Ilocano, Marshallese, Vietnamese, Chuukese, Spanish, etc., etc., but come in speaking Albanian or Swahili and I think you’re still SOL.

  71. MBT, maybe he said ‘tray’ instead of ‘trayss’ and that fooled her.

  72. “all health-care providers that accept federal funds — because they serve Medicare and Medicaid recipients, for example — must take steps to ensure that their services are accessible to people who don’t speak English well, according to the National Health Law Program, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income and underserved people. ”

    We’ve recently discussed how it can be difficult for Medicare/Medicaid patients to find doctors willing to take them as patients; this sounds a requirement that in practice makes it even harder for such patients that don’t speak English.

  73. This post came about because a group of parents was discussing language choices. There was one lady who was in healthcare and was sort of adamant that Spanish was the most valid language choice. She said she didn’t take Spanish in school and neither did her one of her older kids but she sent her younger kid to Spanish immersion elementary. The issue is that the kid has trouble maintaining fluency because the middle and high school don’t have even close to the intensity of immersion. She also mentioned her second kid taking Spanish but sort of having to relearn (didn’t quite catch that) when she went to Chile. I would have thought that if language helps on the job, wouldn’t you make an effort to learn it ? This lady didn’t talk about any effort she had made….

  74. DD-I read that Mark Zuckerberg’s wife learned Spanish so that she would be able to communicate with her patients better.

    Finn-Our exchange student is from Germany. DD’s school does not offer German, so she has not had a chance to study it. We just thought it would be fun to have a student; there was no expectation on our part that other than a few random words we would learn German.

  75. This Peru summer immersion program for college students highlights the value of Spanish language skills for future social workers.  From comments here, this would also seem to apply to medical personnel.

    Exclusively for culturally-curious future social workers & counselors who want better Spanish…

    If your idea of going abroad is to relax in a quaint foreign playground, you’ll be very disappointed. You probably shouldn’t be on this page.

    But you are in the right place if…

    You are aware that Spanish is increasingly necessary for a human services career in the United States, in many cases a strict requirement to even get interviewed.
    You know that without mastering Spanish, you’ll be doing a disservice to, and perhaps even putting at serious risk, a large portion of the population.

  76. Okay, here’s a reference to healthcare.

    Of course, to meet that demographic reality, more and more hospitals require Spanish of their workers.

    Not to get political, but this sounds as if it could be part of a Trump ad.

    “My plan is to go into Correctional Psychology (aka Prison Psychologist). The biggest obstacle to the rehabilitation of inmates/offenders is a language barrier, and the Hispanic inmate population is rising. I will be better able to treat patients if I am able to communicate with them effectively.”

  77. Some of the assistant positions in our schools require Spanish/English fluency. Our local bread outlet wants its cashier to speak Spanish and English. Competence in Spanish makes you more likely to get hired but it doesn’t result in higher pay. I suspect that by the time my kids are grown, either Spanish fluency will be less necessary (most immigrants from Spanish speaking countries have learned English) or there will be enough Spanish on signs, etc. that minimal competence will be easier to attain.

    The schools by the university have kids with several different first languages. It’s a challenge for the schools to keep up with the changes in the ESL demographic.

  78. Honolulu– It depends. I have seen our courts scramble to cover languages we are less likely to have interpreters for. The problem when CPS removes your case is that you don’t want a delay. So the choice becomes one of waiting for a week while we locate an appropriate interpreter (I’ve seen people call local universities with language programs, etc.) or having a niece or neighbor who is bilingual offer to translate for you and accepting that they are doing their best. Most people opt to start right ahead because they want their kids back. I’ve never seen them go forward with a court hearing without any attempt at translation where someone won’t understand it.

  79. I have been trained to believe that decent spanish is not adequate medical spanish. Unless you have native fluency, with medical terminology you should employ an interpreter. We have phones and, in some cases video video uplink interpretation services available, so there is no excuse for not using them – other than it slows things down terribly. I’ve never had a patient with a language that wasn’t available on the phone.

    Also, all patients are entitled to an interpreter (including sign language – writing on paper is not adequate communication) – if you have a single Medicaid or Medicare patient.

  80. Ada– for what it’s worth, the same with legal terminology. I can call a parent and remind them of an appointment or a court date. But if I’m explaining their rights? I sit with the interpreter and make sure it’s all crystal clear. “Good enough” for some things isn’t fully accurate for other things. I can imagine medical care being similar. You can probably easily tell someone “come back next week,” but I imagine you want discharge instructions to be detailed and to be able to answer any questions.

  81. @ Rhett – I enjoyed the Game of Thrones link and whoever posted the Harper’s link on cruising – very funny.

  82. Tulip, my point was that you can manage that for Ilocano, Vietnamese, Chuukese, where there’s a community of people in the state who speak it, but there are languages where there is no University program, there is no neighbor who speaks it, so as a practical matter the promise not to leave someone out because of language becomes impossible. It may be that it’s not a problem because it’s so unlikely that say a Nyanja speaker or something equally obscure is going to be here trying to use the courts or vote with no English, and a hospital would just do the best it could with someone who couldn’t communicate.

  83. “all patients are entitled to an interpreter (including sign language – writing on paper is not adequate communication) – if you have a single Medicaid or Medicare patient.”

    Does the video uplink count?

    Otherwise, another reason for medical practices to not serve Medicare/Medicaid patients at all.

    I seem to recall reading that some doctors with their own practices do this, but volunteer at clinics that serve mostly uninsured/Medicare/Medicaid patients.

  84. See, this is the reason I get cranky about everyone tearing their hair out about climate change. In 1969, overpopulation was the crisis du jour, and everyone was just as freaked out then as now. And I’m sure I’m wrong, I’m sure climate change will kill us all (or at least me) within the next five years, but I still get cranky.

    http://midpeninsulafreeu.com/images/2.pdf

  85. “Our local bread outlet wants its cashier to speak Spanish and English.”

    One of the cashiers at our Safeway back in Virginia was fluent in five languages (they were listed on his name tag). I thought of this guy every time I heard someone claim that kids who learned another language would have a big advantage on the job market. Maybe it is a plus for relatively low-skilled workers, but totebag kids aren’t going to be working at bread outlets or grocery stores after college.

  86. Interestingly, while that company has a ton of languages we never run into here, I notice its list doesn’t include Pohnpeian or Palauan, which the local courts etc. do have a need to translate (and there are translators available for locally). The goal of universal translation services really is something where you can’t be all things to all people, just set the goal, give it teeth, and then scramble to meet it.

  87. Agree with A Parent – would rather our kids learn to code than a foreign language. But coincidentally, tonight they told us that they are able to take Latin at their school (I didn’t know) once they hit a certain grade and would like to do that. I said fine with us! (Thanks Scarlett.)

    Happy Mother’s day to all the moms here. I’ve learned so much from you.

  88. totebag kids aren’t going to be working at bread outlets or grocery stores after college.

    Some of them will be working in healthcare.

  89. Scarlett,

    I think you tend to overestimate the number of qualified entry level candidates at a given price point. Your typical entry level hiring manager is going to try and do the best they can with a very limited budget.

  90. Hilarious Lands’ End article.  I had no idea they were attempting to become more fashionable, which probably shows how clueless I am about these things.

    she aims to complement the catalog’s turtlenecks and elastic-waist pants with more fashionable items….

    a Lands’ End customer for 20 years. “They’re adding too much fashion.”

    The new CEO  had private bathrooms installed in both of her offices, something unheard of in the company’s history. “Lands’ End executives didn’t have private bathrooms,” said Stan Tymorek, a former longtime employee.

  91. Related to OP:

    Dem VP Prospects Studying Spanish…

    The Castro brothers — ­Julián and Joaquín (not Fidel and Raúl) — are said to be studying Spanish very hard in the event that either one is picked as Hillary Clinton’s running mate….

    “Surprisingly, they don’t speak Spanish,” one insider told me. “They are cramming with Rosetta Stone.” (A spokesman for Julián denies he is studying Spanish.)

  92. Coc – not surprising about poor Spanish inspite of being Hispanic in origin. There are quite a few families here where the parents talk amongst themselves and to the kids in Spanish but the kids respond in English. If the kids have relatives/friends who speak little Spanish and mostly English their Spanish is not going to be that great. Same with any other language. The one family whose mother is from France sends their kids to a French immersion school.

  93. Denver Dad, when I worked in healthcare IT, we had to do 3 days of hospital training. I learned all kinds of useless nuggets, like what the Joint Commissions are. One thing I learned was the legalities of interpretation. According to regulations, even if I speak perfect Chinese/Korean/Spanish/Tagalog/whatever, I am still supposed to call in an official interpreter when dealing with a patient who has trouble understanding English. Why? It isn’t just medical terminology. Evidently interpreters are also trained to interpret exactly and not add any biases. We were told that the hospitals in the NYC area could deal with any language – if it is too obscure, they use a phone translation system. So, we were told, absolutely no ad hoc translation.

  94. Obscure language factoid – linguists and anthropologists actually come to Queens to study rare languages that have died out in their home country but are still spoken here.

  95. My DH’s father, who was of French-Canadian ancestry, was sent to a French speaking Catholic school as a kid, but he still managed to lose the language. His father (DH’s grandfather) spoke little English. My DH regrets that his father lost the ability to speak French, and wishes he could speak it himself.

  96. Rhett,
    My experience with entry level hiring is pretty limited so I’m not sure what you’re saying. Is language fluency actually a plus?

  97. Rhett,
    Of course, foreign language fluency would be an advantage, or even a requirement, for certain jobs, especially medicine, law enforcement, social work, religious, education and other fields that involve significant contact with limited-English populations. But I’m thinking of the totebag kid whose parents have the bandwith to stand in line to get a slot in the immersion elementary school and who will probably end up working in a white-collar field with other highly educated colleagues like most of the regular posters here. Is he better off studying Latin or computer code than becoming familiar with but not actually fluent in Spanish?

  98. Scarlett, you’re assuming the kid stops short of becoming fluent or competent in Spanish. And there are many white collar jobs where competency in Spanish or another language would be a plus. The big consulting firms all do international work, for example.

  99. I wonder if studying a foreign language, along with art, music, computer coding, etc. is valuable or merely a sign that one learns easily. My friend with the two adopted and two biological kids, with different foreign language skills despite living in the same countries together, would probably say that people who learn easily can, in general, learn a language easily.

  100. Mooshi, and reality in healthcare is that if the provider speaks the language, the patient is happy they are understood and nobody calls an interpreter in because it would just be a big hassle for everyone.

  101. Is he better off studying Latin or computer code than becoming familiar with but not actually fluent in Spanish?

    I’d say taking a few Java classes in high school is going to help you get a job after college about as much as a few years of Spanish. As Denver pointed out, the question is do you plan on following through with it.

  102. I don’t see learning to code and learning a foreign language (or even a non-foreign language other than English) as being mutually exclusive.

    Learning another language, whether Latin or anything else, IMO helps future learning, in part by opening one’s mind to the fact that there are other ways to skin a cat.

    Similarly, learning programming, even at a rudimentary level, provides a level of logic to which many might not otherwise get.

    Learning either, even at a rudimentary level, but especially when young, IMO facilitates better learning of those subjects at a later time. And as I’ve mentioned before, I think that learning one language beyond one’s first language makes it easier to learn other languages.

  103. Well, I don’t know that anyone is saying that the choice is binary in theory — the question is more which do you choose given the limited time available in the school day.

  104. WCE, it helps to be a quick study, but it’s not just that. There’s having an ear for languages — that, I think, is related to having an ear for music — and then there’s having the knack for intuiting grammar, which of course is extra hard for anyone with dyslexic tendencies.

  105. IMO, both the ear for languages, and the knack for intuiting grammar, can be enhanced with exposure to multiple languages, especially when very young.

    E.g., kid is born into a household with parents speaking English, one set of grandparents speaking Mandarin, one set of grandparents speaking Cantonese, lots of Korean soaps on TV– I think this kid will learn pretty quickly to distinguish those languages, and many or the grammatical differences, which will also develop the kid’s ear for other languages and grammatical differences.

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