Following up on last week, I don’t think we should focus on teaching or learning “world” or “foreign” languages. From an ecolinguistic point of view, we observe Spanish spoken all over the place. Let’s focus on how you would teach languages as if they were “local” and not “foreign,” that is, if kids in our school, people at the mall, were speaking those languages.
The example of Spanish works best. In the US Spanish is, in fact, not a foreign language. Since the US became the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, we should no longer teach Spanish as a language spoken “over there.”
Yes, people speak the language in lots of other countries, but that doesn’t make it a “foreign” language. If you lived in Panama would Spanish be a “foreign” language? Of course not. If you lived in Bilbao, would Basque be a “foreign” language? It would be a “local” language.
In reality, we speak many languages here locally in my town, even in our suburb and in our school. What would we need to do to fashion our language class to fill this role for language, especially Spanish?
Spanish has been spoken in North America longer than English. By the time the English set up their first settlement here, one could see Spanish influence from the Chesapeake Bay to the tip of South America.
Yesterday I went to the mall near my house. I heard occasional Chinese, Russian, and Somali, but many people were speaking Spanish. At my kids’ suburban school, one can hear Spanish spoken exclusively at some tables.
So I asked my daughter, who is taking Spanish at school, what she would like to learn in order to speak with the Spanish-speaking kids at school. What would be useful in our actual multi-lingual environment?
- Everyday life. Not vacation. At a language-teachers conference one time, I heard a Spanish teacher complain that textbooks assume students are going on a vacation to another country. She complained because it’s classist: not every student has the resources to fly to another country. I complain because it’s too abstract. Why do you learn “museum” before you learn “boyfriend”? I still don’t know how to say “skip class,” but I know how to say “flight.” (My kids actually had to maneuver a Spanish airport, and they never needed Spanish.) Spanish class does not interact with everyday life of our students.
- Talk about people. When my kids get together with their friends, they tend to gossip. Who do they like, who do they not like; who is dating whom, why so-and-so is dating the other guy; who is making good decisions, who is making bad decisions; who has strict parents, who has lenient parents. (You were in school once. You probably know how it goes.) Do you want to teach the present tense? Talk about texting and driving, not about going to the train station.
- Slang. If my daughter is going to talk to other teenagers, she needs to learn how teenagers talk. Of course we don’t want our kids judging others—but how do we say, “Don’t judge!” in Spanish? We can tell them to try to get along with other kids, but how do you say, “Be easy on them”? Even if we don’t want our kids to judge, they still need to know how to say “slut” or “playa.” (I’m not talking about the beach.) How about “chores”? How do you say, “Ugh! My parents make me do all kinds of stupid chores!” in Spanish?
- Complain. Of course, I don’t like it when my daughters complain about me, or chores, in English, but if they complained about me in Spanish, I would consider it success. If they did their homework, and accomplished the ability to complain successfully to native Spanish-speakers, I would be happy with their Spanish class. (I’m happy to adjust their attitude on my own time.)
Of course, I don’t necessarily advocate that kids speak disrespectfully or complain or use course language, but I would frankly prefer that they learn how to speak badly than simply learn to study for the test about directions to the train station. My kids only went on a train because we had the money to fly to Spain. Moreover, they didn’t want to go to any museums. When they were in Spain, some boy at the swimming pool was obsessed with their friend. Yet my daughter learned about directions, but not about boy-girl obsession.
My point is not to ingrain bad habits in children, but to ingrain good ones. I want language to meet my kids where they’re at. Language is a tool to do what you’re already doing, but the better you are at language, the better you can do your current task. The good habit I want to ingrain in my kids is that language is useful for what you’re doing right now, that language can connect you to people you meet every day, that language will make you more deeply aware of people right in front of you.