Thinking About Language Learning in America: It's a Problem

Thinking About Language Learning in America: It's a Problem

Karen Gross 21/12/2018 7

I have long worried about the quality of how we teach foreign languages in the US. (For the record, I was a Spanish TA years ago and taught college level Spanish for a short period.) I worry that people take years of foreign language classes in school and still cannot navigate a second language effectively. Ask your friends what language they learned in high school and even college and whether they can carry on a conversation that involves more than "What is on the menu?" and "Where is the X?".

I have also been concerned, as a larger matter, about the absence of Americans who speak a language in addition to English. In many nations, we see citizens knowing two and three languages. And, for those with non-English speaking children and children who have bilingual parents, there is a paucity of available children's literature in American bookstores. And, some of the available language learning materials have stories that are vastly too simple and are not worthy of deep thematic discussions. In this context, see the work of Steve Leveen on improving bilingualism.

It is for these reasons, among others, that my children's book, Lady Lucy's Quest, has been translated into Spanish. In Spanish, it is titled La Saga de la Señorita Sofia (and there is a related activity book). Note the title change to create the alliteration. There's lots of alliteration throughout the text so it is not a literal translation; it is a translation that captures the text's meaning and the language use. Indeed, that is a topic in and of itself: how to do translations well.

This translation will expand the book's reach and enable families to read together in Spanish (there is a paucity of translated children's literature available in bookstores). Also, it can be used as a classroom text for students in high school (or earlier or later) learning Spanish. It has a savvy vocabulary, a powerful story, good illustrations and themes that can be discussed in Spanish as the story unfolds. And, it is a story of many layers with a rich history for the central character. See:

I have read the book to children in Spanish; I have taught using the book in Spanish classes at the amazing Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland. And, the story comes alive in Spanish -- as it does in English. I will be taking it to Puerto Rico in April with KPMG to read to children affected by Hurricane Maria, and reading it in Los Angeles through LA Care to its many Spanish speaking members. I can see lots of other opportunities for this book to showcase how we can enrich language learning and improve reading in a foreign or native language.

The story is available from Northshire Books in Manchester Vermont and from Amazon.

For those who want to consider its use for the classroom, reach out to the publisher for discounts. Ponder how a story with a feisty female character who wants to become a knight can lead to discussions of women's roles in society, career opportunities for women, familial support (or its absence), tenacity, courage, strength and endurance. In other words, through the story, it enables language learning not by memorizing words but reflecting and thinking and reading about topics that matter.

I want more Americans to learn a second language well. I want Spanish speaking families in America, of which there are many, to have access to literature they can read in their homes and schools. I want the story -- and its message -- to be shared because it is empowering and fosters a belief in the power of the possible. Through thought and speaking and thinking, we can learn a foreign language. And, we can learn to think and speak about issues that matter.

Perhaps the description of the book, written in Spanish, says it all:

La Saga de la Señorita Sofía es la historia de una niña enérgica que deseaba ser un Caballero de la Edad Media. Se encuentra con muchos obstáculos, pero encuentra el éxito porque logra resolver problemas utilizando soluciones creativas e inesperadas. Con sus acciones y sus palabras muestra la importancia de perseguir metas y el poder de lo que es posible para niños en todo el mundo.

We can do better with language learning. I hope La Saga is a useful and important effort toward this end.

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  • Andy Mcarthur

    Here are several advices from my experience: 1. First thing you need to do is to SPEAK and to LISTEN from day one. No excuses. /2. Stop using Duolingo or any other gamification program. It's useless. /3. Use flashcards, instead. And repeat the sentences in different contexts so you learn them faster. /4. Create your own dialogues and keep listening to native people, constantly! / 5. Talk to them through skype. Practice, practice, practice!

  • Richard Donaldson

    Well, immersion does work just fine. The problem is that westerners living in foreign countries don't immerse themselves at all. They live in a bubble surrounded by people speaking their language.

  • Amrit Sidhu

    There is one important fact that people should never forget and it is that we can all learn a foreign language, and it will take the time that it will take.

  • Nicola Bowes

    I want to learn Japanese to watch anime without subtitle.........

  • Emily Jaine

    School got in the way of my already nearly non existent social life.

  • Conor Hillyer

    Human beings can be truly amazing at anything if they are nourished well!

  • Dan Sunderland

    I feel like so many modern language teachers contribute too much time to making learning the language fun, than to make it effective. I'd rather learn a language and be able to have a fluent and constructive conversation than to have fun learning it.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

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