THE FRIDAY RANT: French??? Really???

stupid_american_idiotChina’s reform era is now entering its third decade and just now, in 2010, are Americans beginning to awake to the importance of learning Mandarin.  Now when I say “beginning to awake” I mean the alarm clock just went off and you’re that groggy kind of awake, not fully alert.  For most Americans, French or Spanish is the choice when studying a foreign language in high school.  Even those options are dwindling rapidly in many American schools as budget cuts ravage the country’s public education system.    The problem though is not limited to just the public schools.  Many of the country’s most elite private high schools, with tuitions exceeding $40,000 per year, still do not offer what I would characterize as a “strategic language” (Chinese, Arabic or Russian).   Again, it’s French or Spanish, and in some cases even German (yeah, go figure).

The United States is the midst of a foreign language crisis.  Not only do we not teach languages very effectively, but we remain focused on the wrong languages!  According to the New York Times, almost 50% of the country’s schools still teach French while only 4% have a Mandarin program.  4%!?!?! This wouldn’t be quite so upsetting if French wasn’t the dominant foreign language choice.  Unlike Chinese or the other strategic languages, French is shrinking language.  Yes, given both France’s and Canada’s shrinking birthrates along with many former French colonies turning to English and even Chinese as their foreign language of choice, every year there are fewer and fewer people who speak French

Commercial_Appeal_logoHow can people not see what is going on? Well, exhibit A: An editorial this week in the Memphis, Tennessee newspaper “The Commercial Appeal” that decries the growth of Chinese at the expense of, you guessed it, French. (Scroll down to the comments below the editorial as they are also highly recommended for insights in America’sdestructive provincialism — note, the comment by your blogger “EricOlander”).

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The news is not all discouraging though.  While French remains the predominant foreign language, the growth of Mandarin Chinese classes in both public and private schools are on the rise, according to the New York Times. Sadly, the vast majority of these programs are located in areas with high concentrations of Chinese-Americans who already have a connection to the culture and the language.  Yes, ABCs (American Born Chinese) play an important role in our country’s linguistic development, but for the growth of the language to have any significance it has to go well beyond the ethnic enclaves all the way to the mainstream.

Americans across the educational spectrum had better get their foreign language priorities straight very quick or the much discussed demise of American influence, prestige and global power will continue apace.  The catch, though, is that most folks in the USA won’t have any idea what happened and when they do, they won’t have the skills to understand a word of what happened.

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