Saturday, August 26, 2006

The new high school offerings

Back when I was in high school, some fifteen years ago, foreign language curricula were fairly standard across the country. Every school I knew of offered at least French and Spanish. My own school offered German, which was also quite common. The fourth language usually offered was Latin. Any languages beyond that were typically found in private schools or "special" (charter, magnet) public schools, and were usually the common Asian languages (Mandarin, Japanese) or what I think of as "second-tier" European languages (Italian, Russian).

I recently got hold of the curriculum for the local high school where I live now, and I was quite surprised when I saw the languages that it offers: ASL, Filipino(!), French, Mandarin, Punjabi(!), and Spanish. No German or Latin. The course description for ASL includes a warning that it may not satisfy some colleges' foreign language requirements.

I've long been of the opinion that everyone should study at least one foreign language in his or her lifetime, and I consider it a disgrace that most U.S. high schools have no foreign language requirement for graduation. The benefits to foreign language study are numerous: the ability to communicate with more people, the appreciation of other cultures, and a better understanding of one's own native language.

Until now, I've never thought much about which of those benefits is most important. But as I ponder the inclusion of these less commonly-spoken languages and the exclusion of what I consider staples of the traditional Western curriculum, it feels to me that local school districts are making decisions based more upon their personal interests than the goal of a comprehensive high school education for its students. The highest-represented minority races in my city are Hispanic (24%), Filipino (19%), Chinese (9%), and Indian (9%). And although I couldn't find precise statistics, I wouldn't be surprised if our deaf community is significantly larger than average, due to our proximity to a major school for the deaf.

It's natural, of course, for a community to want its language represented in its local high school curriculum. And yet, I wonder if the public schools are really the right place to be teaching such uncommonly spoken languages as Filipino and Punjabi (incidentally, why Punjabi and not the more widely-spoken Hindi?). Should it not be the role of Filipino parents to pass on their culture and heritage to their children, rather than relegating it to the schools? I am tremendously proud to be Taiwanese-American, but I would never support teaching Taiwanese in schools. Especially given the fact that Mandarin is currently the official language of the country, Taiwanese is a fairly useless language for anyone without close ties to pre-1950 Taiwan. While I would love to increase awareness of the country's history and politics among young people, I don't believe that giving the Taiwanese language a disproportionate level of importance in public schools is the way to do it. Let me learn Mandarin in school, but Taiwanese from my family. (See this previous post for a detailed treatment of the differences between Mandarin and Taiwanese.)

I admit, too, that I'm quite distressed by the exclusion of German and Latin from the curriculum of a school that otherwise seems to have an excellent variety of course offerings. I'm a fairly liberal person; I usually support the political correctness movement, and I agree completely that non-Western culture is undertaught, particularly in this age when the influence of the Middle East and Asia on our politics and economy is larger than ever before. But German is undeniably a valuable language in the modern world---I would argue, far more important than ASL, Filipino, or Punjabi---and Latin, far from being a dead language, plays a crucial role in law, medicine, and the English language itself. To make them unavailable is, in my opinion, inexcusable.


Doug said...

The benefits to foreign language study are numerous: the ability to communicate with more people, the appreciation of other cultures, and a better understanding of one's own native language.

I suspect you've left something off this list that you consider important. Learning Punjabi would do all of these things.

If it's usefulness, wouldn't kids in your community find Filipino more useful than, say, German?

If the Punjabi speaking kids are the ones taking the Punjabi classes, is it really being taught as a foreign language or are they studying it the way we studied English? Should that have been left to our parents? (Okay, yes, I kind of like home schooling, but that's another subject.)

I'm probably reading too much into it, but the offerings are in line with my own perception that Asian cultures are in the ascendency now, as European influence fades.

Language Lover said...

Perhaps my error was in not specifying what I mean by "usefulness". Although Filipino would indeed enable one to speak with lots of people in my local community, I don't think it's a useful skill for a non-Filipino once he leaves the confines of Union City, California. This is not an East-West debate. Notice that I don't object at all to Mandarin being offered. I'd also be in favor of Hindi and Arabic, two other non-Western languages whose speakers are playing an increasingly large role in the world. But Filipino has only about 22 million native speakers and 85 million total, far below Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, and even Bengali.

As for the parents vs. schools debate: if the intention is for students to learn their parents' native languages as we learn English, high school is starting far too late. To me, it's simply another example of how parents want to leave all education to the schools, instead of recognizing their own crucial roles in the upbringing of their children.

It's quite possible that I'm biased toward German because it was my first foreign language. But I've found it immensely valuable in my science, math, and music studies, and there's no question that German-speaking countries still play a significant role in the world. I consider it a true shame if today's high school students are not afforded the same opportunity that I had.

Language Lover said...

To anyone discovering this old blog entry through a search engine:

I no longer agree with this post, which I wrote over four years ago. I've thought about deleting it, but ultimately I believe it's more valuable to show that people change and ideas change.

As I've learned more about concepts such as power, racism, and colonialism, I've recognized how much of what I deem valuable has been shaped by growing up and living in a country so dominated by elite white Europeans. I believe that what is taught in the schools should be determined by the needs of the people who attend them, not by some false conception of what is inherently superior. And the more the languages and cultures of historically marginalized groups are celebrated, the less marginalized they become.

I still love my German and Latin, but now I'm also interested in learning Haitian Creole (not just French) to communicate with the Haitians in my Boston community. I'm glad to be able to speak "proper" Spanish, but I'm also grateful to know the idioms and idiosyncrasies of the language spoken by the Latin@ immigrants I work with.

The essay "How to Tame a Wild Tongue" by Gloria AnzaldĂșa is a moving and insightful look at language and identity.

May we one day live in a world where the personal interests of all are considered a worthy part of a comprehensive education.