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Con: Some students can't, don't want to learn another language

By Gheni_Platenburg
Oct. 9, 2011 at 5:09 a.m.

Patrick Hubbell teaches Spanish at Victoria West High School.

Patrick Hubbell teaches Spanish at Victoria West High School.

Bryan Newton failed Spanish for three years in a row.

Now a senior at Victoria West High School, Newton has one last time to pass the class that has given him so much trouble over the years.

"Some people just can't comprehend a foreign language," said Newton, 17. "I can't pronounce the words, and I don't understand it."

Newton is not alone.

The sizeable number of students who fail foreign language courses helps fuel the argument that public schools should not mandate students take foreign language courses to graduate.

"It's a wonderfully idealistic concept for people who have never taught in inner city schools," said Cynthia Fabian, a former longtime English and English as a second language teacher, New York schools curriculum writer and regular contributor to Princeton Review's online publications. "There are a lot of students in the inner city who are not speaking their own language well."

Critics claim a lack of basic English grammar concepts and reading comprehension abilities can pose a big problem for native English speakers trying to learn a second language.

"Textbook-based foreign languages use terms like: participle, infinitive, gender, noun-adjective agreement of number and gender, verb tense indicators. These terms are not always taught in American schools until high school, and even then students struggle with them," said Jennifer Little, a 40-year English and Spanish teacher. "When I taught Spanish, the idea was to build on the proficiency of the (English) language, I really ended up teaching English using Spanish."

Little estimated 52 percent of Americans are not fluently competent in the English language, meaning they cannot read and write at at least a sixth grade level.

She said the reeling statistic is not noticed because of people's ability to converse with each other.

"Most Americans speaking in English can have their needs met, but that does not mean they can comprehend the 'literary' English of formal written English. The conventions and standards are quite different," said Little. "We can survive with conversational language because nouns and verbs with very few adjectives or other parts of speech are needed to get along."

The issues of learning a foreign language also comes into play with non-native English speakers attempting to learn English and perhaps even an additional language in order to meet imposed graduation requirements.

"There are many students who are bilingual, to some extent, in their parents' native language, such as with the agricultural workers in California. Unfortunately, much of the Spanish the families speak is considered 'illiterate' Spanish by those who are fully fluent and educated," said Little. "When native Spanish speaking students learn the textbook style of Spanish, they also have difficulties because it bears little resemblance to what they speak."

Teachers remain unsure of how to address the issue.

"Things are not what they used to be." Fabian said. "Children can only learn in short spurts. To introduce a foreign language would make it that much worse."

The current classroom approach in foreign language classes, which emphasizes grammar rather than conversation, as well as the confusion of which foreign language classes to offer also deters critics from the idea of making foreign language classes mandatory.

In recent years, educational researchers have also introduced another reason advocating against mandatory foreign language courses - foreign language learning disability.

The disability seeks to explain why some students, dubbed foreign language "underachievers," struggle with learning a foreign language, and in a growing number of cases are being referred to programs for learning disabled university students.

A 2004 academic article by S. DiFino and L. Lombardino explores why there are a number of bright students who work hard to turn in their homework, seek out extra help with tutors and professors and still struggle to get passing grades.

"These students often do not have a documented disability, but in fact do have an area of weakness in their ability to learn languages," said the article. In theory, their test scores should be the highest, but in reality, they are the lowest. Instructors watch the motivation and morale of these hardworking students decline rapidly until the day they drop the course."

However, no empirical evidence has been published to support the concept of a foreign language disability by those professionals who use the term, and guidelines for diagnosing a disability in learning a foreign language are not available.

Although Fabian is firmly against making foreign language classes mandatory, she does admit it could hurt American students' ability to interact on an international level.

"We may or may not be able to compete in the global market," said Fabian. "It's really sad."

A more simple reasoning for keeping foreign language as an elective rather than a mandatory course is students' blatant lack of desire to learn a second language.

"I don't see it being like math. I don't see myself needing it in the future," said Bailey Mendoza.

A sophomore at Victoria West High School, Bailey, 16, is enrolled in Spanish II, but he doesn't want to be.

"It should be counted as more of an extra-curricular class," said Bailey. "If I want to learn it, then I'll take an online class or take Spanish."



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