Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kristof Rides Again

In the Times today, Nicholas Kristof suggests American kids need first to learn Spanish, and then to learn Chinese. Kristof, notable for his outrage that Meryl Streep and Colin Powell  couldn't become NYC school teachers (never mind that neither has expressed the remotest interest), leads with a joke:

If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all? 

Answer: an American. 

Last time I heard that, the Dead Sea was still sick.  Kristoff says everywhere he turns people are asking how their kids can learn Chinese. This is what happens, I suppose, when you breathe the rarefied air of a NY Times op-ed columnist. Everywhere I turn, people are asking how the hell they can get their cars out of the snow.

There is one reason, and one reason only, why Americans are such notoriously awful language learners--we live in a big country where English is spoken by almost everyone. For our kids, there's little obvious practical advantage to speaking a foreign language, so we have to work very hard to encourage them. It's true Spanish is very popular and practical, with something like 20% of Americans speaking it. For that reason, Spanish is an awful lot easier to learn and practice. That's why even a gringo like me can pick it up with a little effort.

But to get kids to speak Chinese we'll need more than Kristof and his preposterous billionaire-sponsored notions about "reform." We'll need to move away from the drill and kill, math and English-focused test prep being inflicted on our children by Kristof and his likes. We'll need small classes where kids can get individual attention, and trained teachers rather than Streep or Powell. We'll need experts who can motivate kids to not only study, but also practice a language. And we'll need to set up regular opportunities for kids to do so, ideally with native speakers with whom they can identify and relate to.

As for Kristof, he gets to not only sit around and pontificate on topics about which he knows nothing, but also get paid for it.

Surely it must beat working for a living.
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