Trinity decision misguided
I write to express my concern regarding the November decision of the Trinity School Board to replace the French language program with Chinese. The idea that this will somehow yield greater choice to students is misguided.
To be sure, there is compelling reason to adopt Chinese. Studying Chinese opens up a world of cross-cultural insight between Eastern and Western-based civilizations. Americans are in dire need of these perspectives and the economic advantages they may bestow in the global marketplace. The fact that so many citizens of China like those of so many of our global competitors begin to learn English from an early age should galvanize us in the belief that our children, under the right circumstances, are also capable of learning a foreign language (Why do we persist in the belief that our inability to communicate in tongues other than our own is a sign of superiority?).
However, Chinese is an inadequate substitute for French in the high school curriculum for two reasons.
First, given the number of semesters currently allocated to the study of foreign languages, high school students cannot hope to reach a level of proficiency in Chinese that is remotely equivalent to the typical French language student. Under the best of circumstances, i.e., full-time proficiency-based immersion with a 1-4 teacher to student ratio, the average student must spend a minimum of 240 hours studying French to achieve a solidly intermediate level of proficiency. That student needs to spend 720 hours to get to a similar level of Chinese. This disparity holds true for Japanese, Arabic or Korean, all of which are considered Level 4 languages in terms of difficulty.
Second, while any language will be useful for some jobs or for some regions, French is the only foreign language that can be useful throughout the whole world. French is second only to English as a global language. Spoken on five continents, it is the official language of 33 countries. In fact, Americans traveling abroad are more likely to encounter foreign nationals whose second language is French, not Chinese (or even Spanish, for that matter). This is because French is the second most commonly taught foreign language around the world. Besides, America’s cultural ties with France are far deeper than those we are likely ever to have with China. Natives of Western Pennsylvania do not have far to go to find the lingering influences of French culture on place names, such as Duquesne, Versailles, Charleroi, and Belaire, among others.
Lastly, let’s not forget the role that our French-Canadian neighbors have had on Pittsburgh’s success as a hockey mecca.
Yes, let’s start Chinese, but let’s not fall victim to a false dichotomy. Cutting French results in fewer choices for students and will have a detrimental effect on their preparedness for college, where foreign language programs increasingly require students to demonstrate communicative proficiency upon entry.
Diversifying foreign language offerings is a step in the right direction. But we must also make the commitment to offer well-sequenced high quality foreign language curricula beginning in elementary school and continuing through the senior year.
No one believes that students will magically pick up reading or math proficiency after two years. Why do we believe it is any different with a foreign language? Like reading, science and math, we simply have to start early and keep at it. Our children deserve it and our country’s future depends on it.
Katrine R. Pflanze
Editor’s note: Pflanze is an associate professor of French at Washington & Jefferson College.
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