Stop teaching kids “foreign” languages

They'll do what they have to to hang out--even learn languages.
They’ll do what they have to to hang out–even learn languages.

By raising the prestige of the languages spoken in our schools, we augment the ability of all of our students to learn languages. Children figure out how to do what interests them, and when language is a part of that, they will learn the language.

I was recently listening to an episode of the “I will Teach you a Language” Podcast, entitled, “How can we change language education in schools?,” in which the host, Olly Richards, interviews Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages. They talk at length about what motivates school kids to learn languages. Good teachers understand these motivations, and, in the ideal school, would help kids discover and plug into the areas they find cool to encourage their language-study.

While the discussion brought in many topics and hobbies to offer kids, they missed an obvious area where they could plug into with their language:

The other kids in the school.


Many American kids think learning languages is irrelevant. They’re often right. The languages taught in schools are themselves a barrier to learning them because they lack a concrete cultural anchor. French, German, Japanese, Mandarin—very popular languages in US schools—are rooted in faraway places.

Even Spanish is taught as a “foreign” language here, even though the US has the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Twenty-one countries in the world count Spanish as an official language. The US speaks more Spanish than 20 of them—including Spain.

Moreover, the textbooks do not connect with real life. Early education textbooks focus on colors and shapes (this book, for example), and later education focuses on grammar (this book for example).

What would a textbook look like written like real life?

* * *
“Hey! Come here!”
“I want to tell you something. Something important.”
“Forget it. You’re an idiot. I’m too busy.”
“Aw, come on. Just come here.”
“Ok. Fine. But just for a second.”
* * *
“What are you looking at?”
“I can look where I want.”
“You got a problem?”
“No, but you’re going to have a problem.”
“Ha! Just kidding. I scared you, didn’t I?”
* * *

You’ll have to study a language in a traditional way for three years before you’ll be able to form these sentences. Whether you’re 6 years old or 16, though, you can use this dialogue every day.

Who is speaking like this? Kids at school. Why aren’t they learning this? Because they’re not learning a language spoken at their school.

What if…?

What if they learned a language spoken at their school? Spanish, as a US language, or Vietnamese, or Somali, or Tamil?

There is one thing that is always cool for kids: making and impressing friends. In the interview I listened to, they had to think of ways to entice kids with cool connections with the language. More power to them. They understand. But they’re stuck with the languages already being taught.

At one point in the interview, Lindsay said that there is “no obvious cultural reason around you to learn the language that you’re learning in school” (12:42). This is true, thanks to the strange, exotic choice of languages schools offer. In my kids’ school, teaching Somali or Oromo or Spanish make sense because there is an obvious cultural reason to teach them because you hear them in the school, as even bilingual kids from these communities constantly pepper their English with foreign words.

These language are already in the schools.

Olly and Lindsay make very strong points. If we want kids to learn languages, they have to be relevant and cool, and the students have to find ways to immerse themselves in them. More precisely, we need them to see that they can do their cool thing more or better by means of the language. We do not need to find Japanese manga to do so, though. The multiple languages spoken in schools right now already possess all these elements. They are relevant when you listen in the halls, and they are cool when you make friends with their speakers.

It’s already happening—without teachers’ help

When I worked with Eritrean refugees in Seattle, the family had a high-school aged son who loved soccer. His English got very good quickly as he socialized with his friends. On the soccer field, though, he learned Spanish because so many of the good players spoke Spanish. This kid came to the school with two solid languages (Amharic and Tigrinya), two other languages (Konama and Arabic), and then learned English. Because of motivation, Spanish was not a problem.

I saw this same dynamic at the Wellstone School I discussed in an earlier post. Students saw fellow-students as their motivation—and their teachers—for learning more languages.

We foster language-learning in our children by focusing on the languages that already surround them. The actual human beings speaking them motivate them to learn, and even provide the material. They make the language-teacher’s job easy.

Do you think it would help students to learn the languages of their fellow-students?

Photo credit: be creator via / CC BY

6 thoughts on “Stop teaching kids “foreign” languages

  1. Aruna

    My nephew is now 3-something years old and he still hardly communicate with everyone, because in that age, his parents already teach him 3 language, which is Melayu (he lives in Malaysia), English (the language that his teacher use in his daycare), and bahasa Indonesia (his parents are both Indonesian). Sometimes we caught him confuse when someone tried to speak to him. Those three languages are surrounding him, so at what age should he learn those all if now he focuses on just one?

    because it seems like he had to, and seeing him not getting into the conversation is making me sad.


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  4. Rachel

    I think schools here (in Australia) do a fairly good job of picking languages spoken in the community, but a really bad job at connecting them to the community.

    For example, the area I grew up had lots of Italian, and we learnt Italian in primary school. But we learnt the Italian to name animals and family, or to name the characters in a carnevale play. Well, most of the kids already knew what to call their family members, didn’t care about carnevale characters, and didn’t have the patience for grammar. Half the class spoke Italian at home, or at least understood it (dialect, yes, but so?). But we had grammar, and learnt colour names, and forgot everything. There was such an opportunity for us to come out bilingual, and it failed, because Italian wasn’t made real to us – it was all about Italy, and grammar, and not about us in Australia and all the people around us, at the shops, at school, who spoke Italian.

    On the other hand, where I live now has a lot of German history, most people have a grandparent or four who spoke German, but it got lost two or three generations ago and is now taught as a second language… let’s learn about Germany… and about grammar… and words you don’t need. Like you said, why not learn something useful? There aren’t any native-speaking kids left, but wouldn’t it be nice to have something you can say to your great-grandmother in the nursing home who’s forgotten all her English?

    The other problem is that community languages are only taught when the community language is also a foreign prestige language. Italian, German, or Mandarin? What brilliant ideas for classroom teaching! Hokkien, Aramaic, Korean or Bengali? Why would we want to teach those?

    Liked by 1 person

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