Sayonara, auf wiedersehn, dasvidania.
I studied history in school even though I didn’t know it: In college twenty years ago, I focused on NATO just as it became irrelevant, then for my masters in international political economy specialized in East-West paradigms that were crumbling at that very moment. I learned French because I loved it, Spanish because it was the obvious next choice, and German to impress a guy I wanted to date. (It worked.)
I don’t feel ripped off by having focused on western Europe rather than the countries we started paying attention to moments later, and I was never unemployable, but I do very much appreciate that educational offerings should adapt to the world around us. So the finding of this survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics that German, Russian and Japanese classes are being cut while Arabic and Chinese are being added doesn’t bother me too much (though ideally we would find room for them all). I am not sure what I think of the bigger finding, that elementary and middle schools are becoming much less likely to offer foreign languages. (In high school, the share remains steady.) On one hand, I would guess that if you don’t start learning a foreign language before adulthood, you probably never will—and there many benefits, personal and societal, to having a world where we speak other people’s languages. On the other hand, I have sat through many elementary and middle school foreign language classes that were so lame that students emerged barely able to utter one sentence.
On balance, though, whether it is because of narrowing the curriculum under testing pressures, budget cuts, teacher shortages or something else, I am going to conclude that this is bad news.
Sam Dillon addressed the burgeoning Chinese class angle in a New York Times piece yesterday. When I was at the Washington Post covering Montgomery County, Md., schools, which includes some of the most educated and involved parents in the country, parents (including some at the paper) pressured me to write about the injustice of only one elementary school offering Chinese immersion in kindergarten. As if that were an inalienable right. Interesting then, interesting now.