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The War, Foreign Languages, and the Schools of Tomorrow

by Daniel P. Girard - 1944

The war has opened our eyes to the need for foreign languages not only for the present emergency but also for taking a more intelligent part in solving tomorrow's problems. Together with a greater use of English throughout the world, foreign languages will help facilitate international communication and make us appreciate foreign cultures and civilizations.

BEFORE Pearl Harbor most Americans were linguistic isolationists. In spite of the greater facilities for traveling and communication already afforded by the airplane and the radio, many of us felt that foreign languages were for the specialists and not for the public at large. If we should be called abroad we could always pick up enough language to get along, or brush up on what was left of our high school French, Spanish, German, or else use our own brand of American. Furthermore, most foreigners spoke some sort of English anyway and seemed eager to use our tongue.

It is illuminating to point out here that before Pearl Harbor the United States was at the bottom of the list for length of study and age of beginning study of foreign languages in secondary schools. Although out of almost 40 nations of the Western world 60 per cent offered a foreign language course for six years or more in the school curriculum, over 80 per cent of our high school students took a language for only two years. Furthermore, we delayed the study of foreign language until the ninth and tenth grades, whereas almost every foreign country began it in the fifth or sixth grade. Another important difference was that over 90 per cent of these 40 countries required a foreign language of all high school students, 75 per cent requiring two languages or more. It may be significant that the 10 per cent not requiring foreign languages of all high school students were the English-speaking countries: England, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.1


In American high schools before Pearl Harbor the overwhelming majority of language students studied no more than 200 hours, and this instruction was spread over two years interrupted by two long summer vacations. The emphasis was on reading and grammar, to make the students "appreciate some of the foreign civilization and its literature." The oral phase—hearing and speaking—was minimized if not entirely neglected. It has been calculated that in the average two-year language course in high school the students got less than an hour and a half of actual practice in conversation!2 This was probably because the classes were usually large, 35 to 45 students, and because, as a timesaver, the instruction was often given in English. Fortunately there were some exceptions. Language teaching in Cleveland, Detroit, New York, and Washington, for example, emphasized the multiple approach, made the oral phase precede reading and grammar study. But, considering the country as a whole, the schools were not turning out well-rounded linguists. Within the two-year limit, with the handicap of a late start, we were preparing boys and girls to read fairly well, but not to handle with any degree of proficiency the other phases of the language. This deficiency in oral mastery was brought out dramatically by our sudden precipitation into global warfare after Pearl Harbor. Our Armed Services and government agencies began a search for competent linguists not only in the more common languages traditionally studied— French, Spanish, Italian, and German, but also in the "rarer" languages—Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and in the many other "unknown" tongues—Malay, Hindustani, Zwahili, etc. Finding very few linguists trained to talk directly to the natives of other lands, the government agencies and the Armed Forces set up their own programs, devised their own methods, hired their own instructors to turn out their own linguists.


When we consider the achievements of such training we must remember that this was an emergency, results had to be obtained in a hurry. Time, money, energy, nothing was spared to bring about desired results. Let us analyze a little more closely some of the factors making for the success of the undertaking. Let us consider the student body. It is no longer a group of youngsters leisurely taking a foreign language for a vague and remote purpose; it is a group of chosen men now in the Armed Services, who have been picked because of previous language training or for their potential ability, as determined by tests, to acquire the foreign languages. The trainee has every incentive to make good. When abroad, his ability to make himself understood may mean the difference between eating and starving, finding his way and getting lost, even between life and death. This necessity for at least a smattering of knowledge of a foreign language for every soldier in this war was well brought out by the United States Office of Education in Education for Victory (February 15, 1943):

In today's war it is important that the soldier be so equipped. Not only does a man feel less strange if he understands what is said to him and is able to pass the time of day with people of the country, but understanding even a little of the language may mean the difference between life and death. Even a limited ability to meet the ordinary social situations greatly increases the cooperation given our troops by the people with whom they are billeted. There is probably no quicker way of gaining the confidence of a foreign-speaking civilian or soldier—neutral, friend, or foe—than by trying to speak to him in his own tongue.

Compare this motivation with that of our average high school students before Pearl Harbor.

The emphasis in the Armed Forces' language program is on the spoken word. The trainees concentrate on making themselves understood. They succeed remarkably well and quickly because, in addition to this limited aim, they have small classes of not more than 10 students, they study intensively from four to six hours a day, and they receive instruction from two sets of specialists—the teachers and the drill-master informants, whose native pronunciation the soldiers imitate. Under such controlled conditions results show very quickly. To the uninitiated they are in the nature of a miracle, and by comparison our slower school approach, our less tangible results due to less drill, less concentration, and different aims all combine to make it look as if the schools had done a poor job indeed. To be fair we must recall that 200 hours of classroom instruction spread over two years at the rate of 45 minutes a day three or four times a week is quite different from a concentration of several hours a day for nine months. The trainees specialize and have to make good or else. Our students in the schools are not hand-picked and have other courses in the curriculum which demand time and attention.


However, if we look at the Army intensive language-training program with a view to adopting some of its best features for our schools, we undoubtedly will consider concentrating on the hearing and speaking phases of the language. We will also cut down the size of the beginners' classes to 20 or fewer, for, if the oral phase is to be effectively taught, each student must receive individual attention particularly at the beginning and during the more or less prolonged period necessary to acquire a good pronunciation. This presupposes capable teachers with a fine command of the spoken language. The possibilities of greater use of sound films and of recordings of drill lessons and passages in the foreign language as models or for exercises in aural comprehension are but a few of the relatively unexplored approaches the schools might emphasize. Heretofore we have paid too much attention to the reading aim. While that aim is important, it is but one of four phases of language learning, the other three being hearing, speaking, and writing. Particularly in tomorrow's world, when communication through radio, television, and airplane travel will bring the people of the earth closer together, we will need more than ever the oral mastery of languages for mutual comprehension. However, when we argue in favor of oral mastery we look upon it as a tool not to be acquired at the expense of reading comprehension which can give such deep understanding of the foreign culture. In other words, we must develop broad cultural background as well as technical competence. Our language-teaching aim, therefore, should be mastery instead of superficial acquaintance, because our interdependent, relatively smaller world will, of necessity, put a premium not only on bilingual or multilingual individuals but also on those who are able to interpret foreign cultures. If we are to avoid other world conflicts, language tools will have to be sharpened for the better exchange of ideas. More and more students will have to be trained to take their proper place in tomorrow's world, in which America will play a dominant role. An important part of that training will be mastery of foreign languages, particularly by bright students, from whom we may expect much of our leadership.

Few people will question the necessity for training youth in the coming years in tolerance, international good will, understanding, and cooperation. All-important in this training will be the teachers. In the past, we have had many fine open-minded teachers with broad background, who influenced students toward a world outlook. More than ever we will need leaders of this kind. The proper study of languages and literature of other countries contributes immeasurably to that end. Languages are a social necessity. Even teachers of other subjects should have had language experience.


What about the training of the language teachers themselves? We have already pointed out that oral command will be a primary aim of the students—it will be even more important for teachers of the language. Because of the expense involved, it is very unlikely that the Army's use of foreign-born informants can be carried over to our public schools. We will have to rely, therefore, more and more on the thorough preparation and excellence of our own teachers; their training will have to be more rigorous. The greatest weakness of students who take their Master's degree in language after at least four high school and college years of study is their inadequacy to use the language actively. They are able to receive ideas through lectures; they can read; they are acquainted with an outline of literature, but these are the more passive features of the language ability. Therefore, in preparing teachers, we must stress the more active phases in which they are weak—until the time comes when more rigorous language training in high school and college will lead to greater ability to use the language actively. The time now spent on language study in high school and college by language majors seems adequate. How that time is spent, what emphasis is given, how much individual work is demanded are the factors calling for improvement.


An interesting by-product of the Armed Forces' intensive language program has been the enormous amount of exaggerated publicity stressing the ease and the speed with which language can be acquired. The public has been misled by sensational releases stating that one can now learn "plain and fancy foreign languages four times as fast as was thought possible before the war"3; or that, "Japanese is one of the hardest of all languages, and we used to think you couldn't learn it in four years of continuous study. But the Navy school at Boulder, Colorado, sets you to chattering it in three months."4 Other subjects in the curriculum had better beware, too, for, according to Dr. Samuel N. Stevens, president of Grinnell College, "We are discovering methods now that enable us to teach unusually bright boys in one month all the important mathematics, history, or physics they get in high school. Soon, in one semester of college preparation, we'll do as much for any gifted student as is normally done in four years of high school."5

Some of these claims might be partly justified for the very bright and the unusually gifted, but for the run-of-the-mill students we should not expect quick cures for linguistic deficiencies. Most "miracles" are performed by a good deal of unsung hard work, often coupled with considerable ability. Learning foreign languages is no exception.


The public is now showing an intense interest in foreign languages. Millions of our soldiers are serving in all parts of the world. With the opening of a second front in Europe countless thousands more will be in direct contact with French, German, Dutch, and other languages. Requests for foreign language grammars and dictionaries, for conversation manuals and vocabularies have risen several hundred per cent within the past year. Popular magazines reflect this foreign-language consciousness. Good Housekeeping, Life, Reader's Digest, Esquire, Coronet, Publisher's Weekly, Newsweek, Time, and many more have published within the past few months articles on languages. Books popularizing language-learning are beginning to come out, for example, Bodmer's The Loom of Language,6 a companion book to Mathematics for the Million, showing "how to learn several languages at once, faster and easier than one at a time!" Professional schools of languages of the Berlitz type report from London as well as from New York large increases in enrollments. Firms that sell foreign-language records place full-page advertisements in the newspapers. No doubt about it, a language boom is upon us! Our schools have not as yet reflected this great interest and demand through large increases in registration, although we can point to an increase of 3 per cent in language enrollments in New York City this semester, in spite of a drop in its school population. The day is not far off, however, when we shall have to meet that growing demand for quicker and better ways to teach languages, for imparting more rapidly the more immediately useful oral phases to students who will look upon foreign-language learning as an essential part of their training for becoming better world citizens.


What languages shall we teach? What criterion shall we use to decide their relative importance—the number of speakers, the land area, the proximity, the cultural and literary values, the importance for business? The traditionally taught Western European languages maintain their importance, it would seem, when measured by any of the above criteria. Without going into too much detail, we can point out7 that French is not only of prime importance for cultural and literary reasons but that it is also, next to English, the greatest secondary or auxiliary language in the world and that, owing to the strategic value of the large French colonial empire, affording bases all over the globe, the French language will continue to hold a key position.8 Spanish is of prime importance to us; it is the language of our neighbors to the south. Its extensive study means much for our future welfare. Inter-American solidarity, so essential for peace, will have to be based on mutual comprehension and sympathetic understanding. This will also mean, of course, making a place for Portuguese in some of our schools, for Brazil is in many ways the most important nation in South America. And here it should be pointed out that a teacher of a. Romance language should be prepared to teach a second Romance language. Teaching Portuguese, for instance, a Romance language closely resembling Spanish, French, and Italian, should not present much difficulty if we use our growing facilities for language teaching—radio, sound films, phonograph recordings, adequate texts, and so forth. As for German, the fact that it has a tradition, a culture; that it is important in science and music; that it is spoken by 80 million people as a national language and by millions of others as a secondary or cultural language, particularly in central Europe and Scandinavia, makes it seem very unwise to neglect it.

As for Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, while the need for studying them will increase, it is the author's opinion that this need will better be met through special language schools or centers than through the public schools.

Some people are of the opinion that since English is spoken by more people than use any other language in the world, the use of that language as an international tongue will be sufficient for international communication and will, therefore, greatly diminish or even preclude the necessity for study of other languages. This opinion is erroneous. No matter how many people speak or read our language, this will not make us know them better. While it will give them some insight into our culture, we still will have to learn their language if we wish to know their culture. Reading about their civilization in English is a very good start, but only a start, toward proper understanding of a people's ways. In other words, no matter how many foreigners learn our English, it would still mean a one-way comprehension, a crippled one-way psychological approach to world problems and ideas. Only through mutual language experience can the English-speaking nations avoid being misunderstood and possibly accused of linguistic domination.


In summary, this war has opened our eyes to the need for foreign languages not only for the present emergency but also for taking a more intelligent part in solving tomorrow's problems. Together with a greater use of English throughout the world, foreign languages will help facilitate international communication and make us appreciate foreign cultures and civilizations. Foreign languages will be a social necessity, and our schools will respond to that need by teaching more of them to a greater number of students who will begin earlier and study more intensively.

The war has brought out the need for emphasizing the oral phase of language. The use of the spoken language will increase with better traveling facilities and with the growth of radio, television, and sound films.

The Armed Forces' specialized training programs have shown us what results may be expected if we care to duplicate in our schools their intensive, concentrated, rigidly controlled, and limited aims approach. We have seen that some of their methods cannot be used in our schools and that some others are feasible.

The public is no longer linguistically isolationist. All evidence points to an ever-growing demand for the study of foreign languages. That demand will soon reach the schools. It is up to us to meet it intelligently and effectively.

1 For additional data consult The French Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 224-27, January, 1942.

2 See, "Army Foreign Language Training, Schools Can Do as Well." Letter to the New York Times, January 30, 1944, by Theodore Huebener, Acting Director of Foreign Languages, New York City Schools.

3 Charles Rumford Walker, "Teaching Languages in a Hurry." Reader's Digest, May, 1943.

4 Walter Adams, "Can Our Schools Teach the GI Way?" Reader's Digest, March, 1944.

5 Ibid.

6 Frederick Bodmer, The Loom of Language (Lancelot Hogben, edr.). W. W. Norton, New York, 1944.

7 Mario Pei, Languages for War and Peace. S. F. Vanni, 1943.

8 Mario Pei, "French as a War Language." French Review, Vol. 16, pp. 52-58, October, 1942.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 45 Number 7, 1944, p. 471-477
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9311, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:21:42 AM

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