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A New Look at Foreign Languages


by Daniel P. Girard - 1954

What does the foreign language picture look like in 1954 America? The author examines the publicís and schools attitude toward foreign languages to get a clearer focus to the answer of this question.

THE National Interest and Foreign Languages is the title of a discussion guide and work paper released three months ago for citizen consultations by the United States National Commission for UNESCO.1 This 130-page booklet is timely and significant. It reflects a concern for a problem that is growing more serious as America takes the lead as a world power. We live in a complex, interdependent world where traveling time between countries has shrunk incredibly, where reports of events affecting sometimes millions of our own citizens flash around the world in a few seconds. Languages are the indispensable tool of these globe-girdling communications. They can, also, if used intelligently and sympathetically, help us understand and appreciate many facets of other cultures, thus bringing us closer to other human beings, different in race and nationality. As Ralph J. Bunche expressed it: "Language proficiency is indispensable to good and constructive citizenship today. We live in an international age."


What are we doing about this? What does the foreign language picture look like in 1954 America? I believe we will get a sharper, clearer focus if we examine, first, the public's attitude toward foreign languages and, second, that of our schools.


For the public the following facts will speak for themselves. More and more Americans are going abroad each year. According to informed sources over half a million went to Europe as tourists in 1953, an increase of 15 per cent over the previous year. It is estimated that France alone will be host to 430,000 Americans this year. In 1951 Mexico was visited by 400,000 of our compatriots. With the low-cost fares now possible by boat and plane, millions more are looking forward to a trip abroad. And let us not forget that 1,500,000 members of our armed forces are stationed in foreign lands.


Another set of figures is impressive: 300,000 persons traveled between Latin America and the United States in 1928. Last year more than three times that many did so. It is obvious, then, that millions of Americans each year come in contact as travelers with foreign languages and foreign cultures. When abroad it does not take them long to make two observations: (1) that although English is spoken in every country they visit, knowledge of only that one language limits them to tourist centers and beaten paths, and that relying on English prevents them from reaching the great majority of the people in other lands (it has been estimated that in countries where English is a popular school subject—in France, for example—92 per cent of the population do not understand a word of it); (2) that some knowledge of a foreign language—even a small amount—will perform miracles. A native of a country is always pleased when a stranger addresses him in his own tongue, no matter how imperfectly. A few key words said at the proper moment in a friendly, smiling way can do more to improve international relations than some meetings officially called for that purpose at the diplomatic level.


Recognizing the importance of people talking to people, the larger airlines now give all their passengers going abroad a foreign language phrase book and other communication aids. Their hostesses, of course, and most of their other personnel are bilingual.


The American public gives us further evidence of a marked increase in foreign language interest. The private language schools and institutes report bulging enrollments. Berlitz, probably the best known of them all, had 25,000 persons last year attending their 25 schools in the United States compared to 14,000 students in 18 schools in 1947. Last year Berlitz announced an expansion and reorganization program to include new textbooks, language records, and correspondence courses. From 1951 to 1953, Berlitz published 60 new books in 30 languages.


Another index of public interest in language learning is the number and variety of foreign language records available in bookstores, music stores, and department stores. The Linguaphone Company has a choice of 24 languages. The Holt "Spoken Language" series, a carry-over of the Army Foreign Language recordings, now includes 21 languages. Language records are sold by both Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. They must be in great demand, for not only do such well-known foreign language record firms as Linguaphone, Cortina, and Decca advertise them widely, but dictionary publishing houses, Funk and Wagnalls and David McKay, for example, are now competing in this profitable field.


Additional straws in the wind are the increasing sale of bilingual dictionaries, conversation manuals, foreign language books, the new "Linguapix" by Simon and Schuster—a book of 800 pictures to which the poor monolingual and tongue-tied tourist can point in a crisis—and the 151 theatres in the United States that regularly show foreign films and the 307 that occasionally do so.


Another phenomenon of our day and age is the international meeting or conference involving businessmen, professional people, or just ordinary citizens from different lands. Such meetings point up indeed the need for knowing languages. As an eminent neurologist expressed it: "The number of international congresses has increased in recent years and the scientist is at a disadvantage if he is unable to converse with colleagues from other nations." Another seasoned observer looked at it this way: "How sad to see members of international conferences—big men, leaders in their countries—unable to talk to each other after the formal business is completed through interpreters."


We have, then, some tangible evidence that a growing number of Americans are aware of the importance of foreign languages in our modern world and are doing something about it. Let us now look at the foreign language situation in our schools. What we see is not a neat, well-arranged picture conducive to pat generalizations and overoptimistic complacency. It is a very fragmented picture, weak and discouraging in some parts, beginning to grow healthy in others, strong and thriving in spots only.


To understand the foreign language picture in our schools today and to anticipate tomorrow's probable needs we must have clearly in mind some of the recent past. We must remember, for instance, that it was not until 1883 that the first modern language association was organized. It included English teachers, and 95 per cent of its members taught in college. This organization was in the nature of a declaration of independence from Latin and Greek. And yet to give prestige to their subjects, to make them difficult and disciplinary (academically respectable, that is), modern language teachers followed closely the methods and aims of the classical languages. They declared that one studied foreign languages chiefly for philological reasons and for literary culture. The understanding and speaking of a foreign language was certainly not an important part of the teaching picture then. How many Americans in 1883 would ever have had the opportunity to talk to a German or a Frenchman anyway? True, a growing number of immigrants were coming to our shores, but they wished to learn our English, to become Americanized as quickly as possible.


From 1883 until World War I we witnessed a slow but steady decline of the prestige of the classical languages and an increase in the popularity of the modern languages, especially German, athough Latin was studied as much as the modern languages in our public high schools until 1922.


When we compare the foreign language enrollment figures in our public high schools for 1915 and 1922, we are startled by the drastic effects which international events have had on foreign languages. For example, German, which in 1915 was studied by 362,000 high school students (28 per cent of the total enrollment), was snuffed out by the war. Only 17,544 students were studying it in our public schools by 1922 (four years after the war was over), .7 of 1 per cent of a high school population that had doubled in seven years. By contrast, French, studied by 9.7 per cent of the high school students in 1915, jumped to 18 per cent in 1922. Spanish went from a small 3 per cent in 1915 to a respectable 13 per cent in 1922, whereas Latin declined from 41.4 per cent to 31.9 per cent. German was slowly recovering by 1934 (3 Per cent of high school enrollments) when Hitler loomed on the political horizon. Today the high school study of German has again dropped below the 1 per cent mark. The other languages have declined too: Latin to about 8 per cent, Spanish to 8.5 per cent, French to 5 per cent of a high school population of nearly 7,000,000 students. Too many figures become boring, but they do reflect the influence which events have on foreign languages. They also show that languages are no longer one of the sacred cows of the modern curriculum.


The number of students taking foreign languages today in the high school has been somewhat stabilized at about 1,500,-000: about one out of every five students (this includes Latin). Of course these figures are national totals and in a sense deceiving. Whole sections of our country are like linguistic deserts—some of the Central Plains states, the Dakotas, and Oregon, for instance. Other areas are more lush, the highest percentage for Latin and French being reported in the New England states and along the Eastern seaboard; for Spanish, in the southwest, New Mexico, Arizona, California.


There are many problems arising from this occasionally violent wresting of Ianguages from the curriculum. We can consider them only briefly here. What happens, for instance, to the language teachers who are in excess—say the thousands of German teachers in 1917 and the 330 French teachers in New York City in the 1940's? In a school system where they have tenure what do you do with them? When a subject booms, as Spanish and French did after 1920, where do you recruit your needed teachers? And, more important, how well prepared are they to teach pupils not only to understand and speak the language but to read it and to write it too? These teachers are also expected to interpret the foreign civilization and are looked upon as the authority on French, German, or Spanish culture in the school. Not only that, but are you aware that eight language teachers out of ten are now hired to teach not one but two foreign languages and one or two classes of English, social studies or physical training to boot? Is it any wonder, therefore, that teaching under such conditions has produced at times some meager results?


Foreign languages and their teaching have been surveyed, inquired into, investigated more, I believe, than any other subject in the American curriculum. That is probably why so many people have become "experts" at discussing this subject and have expressed so many conflicting and inaccurate opinions about it. The ammunition to fire with is available in abundance. We have had the 1893 study of languages made by the NEA (known as the Committee of Ten) and the investigations five years later by the MLA's Committee of Twelve. The Classical Investigation took place shortly after World War I and then the modern languages were subjected to their most thorough scrutiny in 1924. In 1948 we had the Chicago inquiry into second language teaching and learning. We are now in the midst of a three-year inquiry into the importance of foreign languages for present-day America. The 1924 survey, known as The Modern Foreign Language Study, produced twenty heavy tomes, the most controversial and influential of which was Volume 12, the so-called Coleman Report. It advocated shifting from the hearing and speaking emphasis to reading, particularly rapid reading. This recommendation was based on the observation and conclusion that since the survey committee had found that 83 per cent of all language students did not continue beyond the second year, it seemed wise to stress reading as the one aim that could be reasonably attained and that would have the greatest chance of being retained later. Many teachers protested. In fact, a majority of the original Coleman Committee advocated retention of the oral emphasis, but those in favor of reading won out.


During the next decade quite a number of textbook editors, teachers, and school administrators felt that language teaching was now at last on the right track. Stress on reading would yield greater dividends for most pupils. In a sense this constriction of an important medium of communication was in keeping with the period. It paralleled the isolation phase of our politics and international relations. Pearl Harbor, however, jolted us violently out of our linguistic lopsidedness and dramatically showed that too many language teachers were putting the cart before the horse in emphasizing reading first. The Americans who could speak the relatively rarer languages of the East were few and far between. The armed services needed trained linguists in a hurry, specialists by the thousands who could communicate directly with natives in many tongues. We were at war, a global war. Even for the more common languages, French, German, Italian, Spanish, the number of college graduates with foreign language majors who could carry out assignments involving the use of oral language or even the reliable translation of a newspaper or legal document was astonishingly small. Of course our schools and colleges never intended to turn out trained linguists. The main emphasis before Pearl Harbor was on reading. I have heard several of my colleagues at Teachers College say that during their two or three years of high school or college French, German, or Spanish they had not heard a word of it spoken in class. That to me is tragic. Modern languages are living languages spoken by millions of our neighbors. It seems so sensible and natural to approach their culture through the flavor of their spoken idiom as well as through their literature.


During World War II the armed services quickly discovered that foreign languages were vital military weapons and promptly set up their own intensive training centers. Sparing no money, securing the best civilian language teachers from our schools and colleges, together with native informants, bringing all the audio-visual equipment then available to bear on the learning situation, limiting the number of students to eight per class, hand-picking the learners for aptitude and previous language experience, freeing them from all other subjects so that they could devote their entire waking hours to language study—this concentrated approach brought results indeed. It astounded an uninformed public and made it compare most unfavorably the language teaching in the average high school or college classroom with the Army programs. These wartime intensive courses performed no miracles. They went at their limited aim—speaking, communicating with natives—directly, intensively, and for a period of time (six to eight months) which would equal six consecutive years of foreign language study in our high schools.


What phases of the armed services program have we carried over to our postwar foreign language teaching? Possibly a greater consideration of oral practice, and here and there a modest foreign language laboratory where students can come after school hours to listen to recorded conversations and record their own pronunciation on tape or disks. Not much more. We do not find, for instance, at the high school level the doubling of the hours devoted to language study that was initiated in dozens of colleges after the war: an increase in language contact hours definitely attributable to the armed forces language programs. A few texts at the high school and college levels began to stress anew the oral approach, conversation and dialogues, and to pay here and there more attention to people in other lands, how they live and what they are concerned with. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that immediately following World War II and until our involvement in Korea in the summer of 1950, language teaching for the most part went back to fairly traditional lines concerned mainly with functional grammar and reading with a minimum of emphasis on understanding and speaking.


Yet as America was forced to move to a position of international leadership; as our growing responsibilities sent millions of our citizens abroad as soldiers, government employees, business representatives, teachers, and students; as the menace of world Communism made us send our military men and technical assistance teams to Greece and Turkey, to Western Europe, to Korea and many other parts of the globe, the fact that we were competing with Communism to win men's minds made a growing number of citizens realize how important it was to know other peoples' languages in order to understand them better, to gain their confidence by talking to them directly in their own tongue. We know what an appeal this has. As a symbolic gesture it is just as important as extending the hand first to a stranger, showing him the goodwill that can spell the difference between failure and success as people meet for the first time. Nothing else engenders as quickly mutual respect and sympathy. People are proud of their language, culture, and traditions no matter how humble or small their nation may be.


It is reasoning similar to this which probably prompted a growing number of American parents to explore the possibility of starting foreign languages in the lower grades so as to give their children an opportunity to really learn a language properly, that is thoroughly, as a living tongue used by millions of individuals who, though outwardly different, might basically cherish the same things we do.


The recent growth in foreign languages at the elementary level started in 1949, when 10 new programs were inaugurated. This rose to 32 in 1952 and to about 70 in 1953. The estimate for this year is well over 100. Back of this rapid expansion is awareness that very young children learn to speak foreign languages much more easily and with better accent than older children or adults. Children find words fascinating and strange languages engrossing. They will often make up their own secret language. A New York Times writer estimated in 1944 that 10,000,000 American children under twelve used or had used one of these so-called secret languages—Pig Latin, Double Dutch, or some such. We know that this language interest starts at about age five, reaches a peak at thirteen, declines sharply after seventeen or eighteen. Yet the great majority of our students now start their language studies at age fourteen or fifteen (in the ninth grade) and continue for only two years. Too little and too late indeed.


It is significant that out of only seven nations in the world which do not make foreign languages compulsory in their schools six are English-speaking, including of course the United States. We find these same nations at the bottom of the list for the number of years devoted to foreign language study. They are also the ones that start study of the language at a later age than any other country. This is the other side of the linguistic coin. We are rapid expansionists, even imperialists as far as English is concerned, but rank isolationists when it comes to foreign languages. This puts us at a distinct disadvantage in international dealings with non-English-speaking countries, some of which hold positions of tremendous strategic importance for us today.


Starting foreign languages in the grades should make it possible to instill in youngsters an early interest in and acceptance of other national backgrounds, both abroad and in their own community. We are told that particularly in bilingual areas, the introduction into the school of the second language of that area tends not only to develop in the child in whose family this language is spoken a respect for the culture of his parents but also to raise the social status of both child and parent in the community.


The teaching of foreign languages in the elementary school presents, of course, a number of problems. Which students should take a language—all of them or a selected few? If the latter, on what basis should they be chosen? What materials and methods? How should the new offering fit into the curriculum? What about the teachers? Should they be elementary school specialists with rudiments of the language or language teachers knowing little about teaching the young child? Perhaps the greatest problem of all, however, is that of insuring an unbroken chain of eight or more years of language study extending right through the high school. Unless this is done, and it will not be easy, many of these new programs may fall by the wayside.


There are some definitely encouraging signs in the language picture within the academic world. The first and most promising on a long-range basis is this rising interest in starting study of languages in the grades. Left to local initiative it can meet with considerable success. The second is a reported increase (last fall for the first time) in the number of college students studying languages, a small increase to be sure, but reversing the trend of a decline that had been consistent during the previous five years. The third is the growing awareness that languages express cultures and are the gateways, therefore, to the appreciation of other folk. The fourth is the notion that speaking to people, understanding and talking their language, is just as important as reading and writing—and much more basic.


In the training of language teachers during the past thirty-five years, Teachers College has not deviated from a strong emphasis on the oral. Stress on the listening and speaking phase leads naturally to greater use of audio-visual material, tape recorders, play-back machines, and the like. The small but compact modern practice rooms and laboratory built at Teachers College two years ago for language majors underscore this emphasis. Teachers can be retrained. They too have to keep up with the times. Relatively new courses like our language-culture-area offering, in which language and civilization are approached via the regional novel, the basic course in structural linguistics and its application to our specialty, our language workshops, our projected study-group in France next summer—all are tangible evidence that we at Teachers College are doing what we can to be sensibly, effectively modern and to give our students practical means to improve themselves.


Our own President Caswell, in an address entitled "Fundamentals for Tomorrow's Schools," said about foreign languages and their teaching:


. . . we should greatly extend and deepen our understanding and appreciation of other cultures and people. We are ill-prepared to fill the world role in which Fate has cast us. Most of us are extremely provincial. Even those of us who have traveled abroad are apt to have spent the large share of our time visiting cathedrals and art galleries, and explaining the superior nature of our bathrooms and central heating. We have little touched the contemporary cultures of the countries visited, and rarely sensed their current values and difficulties.


And what of the school curriculum? How much is done to meet this great need? Some acquaintance with the historical development of Western Europe is afforded. The cultures of the Middle East and the Far East are almost completely overlooked. Study of the world as a whole receives little attention. We teach almost nothing about Russia, the enemy who would destroy us. Here are some practical steps that any school system could take to improve this situation:


1. Introduce into the curriculum, study of representative cultures in the Middle and Far East.


2. Provide for study of Russia, her people and resources, the tyranny that rules her and the methods she would use to destroy us.


3. Provide for wider study of world geography and economics, giving particular attention to factors that make for interdependence. In respect to all three of these the goal should be to develop understanding attitudes.


4. Improve the teaching of modern foreign languages. Study of foreign languages may be made to contribute greatly to the understanding of other cultures, but in few schools is this achieved. The difficulty arises because teachers too often do not have real command of the language themselves and have only an academic acquaintance with the culture. An educational program is needed for both teachers in service and in preparation that provides firsthand experience with foreign cultures and an opportunity to achieve functional command of the language.


I have already pointed to the fine discussion guide and work paper recently published for UNESCO. This was prepared under the auspices of the Modern Language Association and edited by its secretary, Mr. Parker. This organization, our oldest language group, is now at the halfway mark of a three-year survey on the importance of languages in America today. I commend to you the fine work that Mr. Parker and his committee are doing. They have published some two dozen bulletins, made valuable fact-finding surveys, particularly on college language requirements and language teaching in the elementary schools; they have brought together specialists from various disciplines to focus on common language problems. One outstanding example of their work is their latest report on the teaching of languages on television in the United States.


An unusual meeting took place last August in Ceylon. It was an International Seminar on the contribution of modern languages toward education for living in a world community. It was attended by 33 experts representing 18 nations, members of UNESCO. The work of the seminar was organized around six topics: the humanistic aspect of the teaching of modern languages; the teaching of foreign languages as a key to the understanding of other civilizations and peoples; the methodology of language teaching; audio-visual aids; the psychological aspects of language teaching, including tests and measurements; and the training of modern language teachers. The preliminary reports are a testimonial to the excellent planning of the committee and to the productivity of the work sessions. A meeting such as the Ceylon International Seminar strongly underscores the growing role of languages in our world community. The director of the Seminar was an American and the official languages were English and French.


Among the developments in our area I have discussed the growing emphasis on the oral. This will be reflected in the tests now in preparation by the College Entrance Examination Board and the Regents of New York State. Heretofore college entrance tests have measured only reading comprehension and some functional grammar. The Regents have had a dictation exercise and a passage for oral comprehension. But both are read by the regular classroom teacher, whose voice and pronunciation the students know too well. Within a year or two the oral emphasis will receive official recognition from these two important quarters. Some attempt will be made to measure the students' own oral production and individual pronunciation, probably through recordings on tape. Another encouraging piece of news is that Harvard has received a substantial grant to evaluate and devise tests to predict language ability.


The foreign language picture is not simple. The new look reveals some persistent weaknesses but also some very substantial promises.












1 All-College Lecture Series, Summer Session 1954.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 56 Number 2, 1954, p. 84-91
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4701, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:14:53 PM

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