kitchen table math, the sequel: Teacher in America

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Teacher in America

Chapter 10: Tongues and Areas

Is a Frenchman a man?
Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!

Shortly before setting foot in the United States, I tried to learn something about the country from an old guidebook which had been around the house for years. With my imperfect command of the language, one sentence near the beginning, I remember, filled me with apprehension:

The European tongues are taught in the high schools all over the country, but the instruction is purely theoretical, and the number who can talk French, German, or Italian is very small. Tourists who wish to travel among the remoter districts of New England should be well acquainted with the language, which is the English of Elizabeth with a few local idioms. [1]

Having no idea whether I should be called upon to travel in the “remoter districts of New England,” much less what was meant by the “English of Elizabeth,” I pinned all my faith on this “theoretical instruction” of American youth in European tongues. I now know what it means It means that boys and girls “take” French or Spanish or German (never Italian: the guidebook is wrong) for three, four, or five years before entering college, only to discover there that they cannot read, speak, or understand it. The word for this type of instruction is not “theoretical” but “hypothetical.” Its principle is “If it were possible to learn a foreign language in the way I have been taught it, I should now know that language.”

Various things follow. One is that Berlitz Schools do a thriving business with people who are suddenly confronted with the need to travel abroad. Another is that there is a lifelong Sehnsucht about foreign tongues, which quack advertisements seek to satisfy: “Astonish your friends by speaking to the waiter in French.” A third is that advanced college teaching and graduate study are hampered at every turn by the students’ inability to pick up and read important foreign works. Every year in my senior and graduate classes, I ask those present to write after their names on the class list the languages that they know. Most of them put down French or German or both. But when they come to choose research topics and I suggest a foreign item for their bibliography, they retract their “knowledge” with an embarrassed smile. Some of these students are at the very time “taking” the language in college and some have passed the so-called proficiency test.

There are exceptions to this generality, but most often the exceptional student turns out to have lived abroad or had relatives who speak the tongue in question. When the Army, the Navy, and the civilian war services needed native-born linguists who were also college graduates in the prime of life, they discovered that they had to set up their own language schools and cram German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, and French into people whose previous immunity to language seemed absolute. They could “take” it forever; it wouldn’t “take.”

Everybody knows the outcome: they’re all linguists now. My students send me Christmas cards in Japanese, or inform me that when they return they plan to study under my sponsorship the relations of the Third French Republic and the Tsarist regime. I see very clearly that I am going to have to learn Russian.

Characteristically, college administrators have jumped to the conclusion that the Army must have some secret “method”—held back until M-day—which the colleges ought to find out and apply. Campuses buzz with the spirit of reform, the language departments themselves being divided between the Old Guard, which defends its former “methods,” and the New, whose proposals combine elements of the army training with Area studies. I shall explain what these are in a moment.

Meanwhile, the Army and Navy’s victorious inoculation of the antilinguistic American boy is not hard to account for. It was not a secret; it was mainly Concentration. The men were segregated, put in charge of foreign instructors, drilled morning, noon, and night under conditions of prisonlike rigidity. Standards were high and failures from laziness or incapacity were weeded out as fast as they shoed up. A competitive game was set going, which keyed up the good minds to outdo themselves. Outside the class hours, the men would quiz each other, talk, joke, and write in the language they were learning. Two powerful motives were at work: the negative fear of not keeping up and therefore being returned to the ranks, and the positive wish for a commission and the pay that goes with it.

Clearly if these or similar motives could be brought into play in high school or college, language teaching—or for that matter the teaching of any subject—would yield astonishing results. If I did not mention as an incentive the very real desire to discharge a patriotic duty, it is because that motive already finds a parallel in the civilian’s academic career. The man with the moral fervor of patriotism is likely to be the man with the moral fervor of scholarship; in both cases, the student sees himself as owing a duty to something greater than himself. This kind of ambition no system can demand; it can only use it when found.

1 New England: A Handbook for Travellers (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873).

Teacher in America by Jacques Barzun
Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1981
first published: 1944
pp. 185-188


Allison said...

None of our Armed Services teach all of their recruits foreign languages.

In general, they only teach the ones that they put into service as linguists, though it's possible that in the last 6 years, many more have been allowed to learn Arabic and Farsi.

But their stellar language schools are reserved for the recruits who tested high in language learning aptitude according to the Defense Language Aptitude Battery,
and then are taught, taught again, and put into service, and then tested again. Some of the tests are on things that simply can't be taught--like which phonemes your ears can differentiate without any other context clues.

So not all the recruits have the skill or aptitude, and they don't waste their time teaching them or asking them to concentrate.

Paul B said...

An interesting OT. I have an acquaintance who was taught Chinese in the Air Force. The training was even more intense than the article describes. He was immersed in Chinese language 24 hours per day, having to wear earphones, while sleeping, that continued the immersion.

Twenty years later, when he dreams, it's in Chinese.

Paul B said...


Would it be fair to say that this aptitude screen is ensuring students will be in their ZPD?

Having gone though a lot of military training myself I would note that it was excellent and every bit of it was DI. Of course I didn't think much of it at the time but still it's amazing what it accomplishes in very short order.

Another point to ponder is the impact of military culture on the whole training system. From day one you're stripped of your individualism and made part of a group. It doesn't take long before your motivations are all about not letting your group down. You might even say that the last bit of remaining 'identity' that you have is your specialties and rank.

Powerful motivation, no fluff, intense focus, and high expectations, when brewed, create a potent drink. If all that doesn't work, there's the bad ass drill instructor/Master Chief/Master Sargent to provide 'direction'.

Allison said...

Well, your explanations of ZPD always indicate that you'd adjust your teaching to match their ZPD...

the military doesn't do that.

They check you're in THEIR ZPD, right? if your zone matches their teaching, you're in.

but you're right about the motivation, lack of individualism, intense focus, high expectations, etc. They don't have classroom management problems, do they?

My dad was a Korean linguist for the Air Force 50 years ago. He went to the AF language school at Yale (physically at Yale, but AF teachers) to learn Korean in a shockingly small amount of time, then to Korea for more, and was there for several years. Then he came back at taught Korean to other recruits. He didn't have any stories of dreaming in Korean, but maybe he did 30 years ago...

He said the best drills he ever got weren't in learning Korean, but in learning to teach.

Paul B said...

My friend with the Chinese dreams went to Yale for his training too. I wonder why they use Yale with AF instructors. Is there a center of language expertise there?

You're right of course about the ZPD. I never thought of them reversing the concept, duh? Of course if public schools took the approach that grade level placements are garbage they could create little learning pods with ZPD entry requirements to ensure minimal lost souls.

Nah! Makes too much sense. It's better to have hypothetical learning as in the article. Then you can pretend everybody learned something, maximize the use of your physical plant, and keep your hand out for more budget next year.

Paul B said...

re: classroom management.

I'd wager that DIs don't even know what that term means.

I'm not rolling on the floor laughing but I do have an enormous smile on my face on that score. Consistency in the guarantee that your entire company will suffer for your every misstep has a way of focusing the mind.

Tracy W said...

I heard a story that when radios started being used in WWI, the British were faced with the problem that the Germans could listen in on them. They solved this by using radio operators who had learnt French at English schools. They could understand each other, but the actual French couldn't understand their French, so the British reckoned the Germans would have no hope of translating.

In NZ, there's similar ignorance about foreign languages. They're taught, but not learnt. And I can't see an ordinary school creating the sort of pressure that the military can manage. Why go through all that stress for a language that you're unlikely to use? And for the typical NZer every non-English language is one you're unlikely to use, nearly everyone in NZ and the nearest country Australia speaks English, those who don't come from all over, and once you get past Australia you might wind up anywhere in the world.
Americans of course have more of a basis for learning Spanish. But why French, or German?

ChemProf said...

While a normal school can't create the sort of pressure the military can, they can do better. My French is okay -- I can carry on a commercial conversation, say to get a hotel room or order dinner, including over the phone, but regular conversation is a bit too fast for me. My accent is good enough that I had to keep asking for the English brochures last time I was there. I got this far with four years of public (mediocre) school, but mostly it was my Junior High ninth grade class that made the difference. French II in my junior high only had six students, and so she had us doing a ton of drill and conversation. She was fluent (although not native), and a stickler for correct pronunciation. We kept up because it was fun, partly because we essentially had a secret language at school and because if we didn't, it was embarrassing. The possibility of personal humiliation is a great motivator (as I learned again in college when my voice class had a weekly performance session -- even if I was just singing for the half dozen students in class, I wanted to do as well as I could!).

I hesitate to write this, as someone might think I'm endorsing having the teacher humiliate students. That's not the idea at all, and my French teacher was always very supportive. But, if we weren't on level with the others, and we knew we could do better, it really made us want to catch up! The small class size helped us to form a cohort, to make sure that none of us could hide, and to give us all a lot of chances for drill.

Of course, since the enrollment in ninth grade French was so small, the junior high changed its' policy so that you couldn't start French in 8th grade, only Spanish, so we were one of only a couple of classes to have that opportunity.

Paul B said...

It didn't take me long to realize that being a huge pain in the butt in September is an investment that lasts all year.

This is not unlike military culture. Bootcamp is September and the whole idea is to humiliate the hell out of you. Are humiliate and humble related?

Anyway, I didn't mean to imply that September lasts forever in the military. It doesn't. I never felt humiliated after boot camp. I felt like a professional. I just knew precisely what was expected of me and what the consequence would be if I let my crew down; death, not humiliation.

I wonder sometimes if that system isn't better than the persistant low level humiliation of public school kids that lasts 13 years. I treated every post boot camp training (where most of it is) like I was 'all in'. By the time I got out of the service all my subsequent education (where most of it occured) was also 'all in'.

Maybe boot camp left a lasting impression on me, eh?

Anonymous said...

"None of our Armed Services teach all of their recruits foreign languages.

In general, they only teach the ones that they put into service as linguists...

I believe the special forces soldiers (but not necessarily support personnel) all learn a foreign language, too.

The Green Beret Lt. Colonel dad on my son's Little League team had a language, and he wasn't a linguist.

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

PaulB: "It didn't take me long to realize that being a huge pain in the butt in September is an investment that lasts all year."

Last year, I was on a panel for new faculty. The three of us were in different disciplines and had very different teaching philosophies and personalities, but we all agreed -- you need to scare them a bit the first day! They need to know that the teacher is serious and expects a lot from them (but then also let them know there's a lot of support available). An older colleague of mine describes it as "don't smile 'til October"!