Friday, October 23, 2009

Learning A Language

Guest Writer, Maribel Charle Poza

My first experience with foreign languages was not a very pleasant one. It was September of 1986 and I had just started sixth grade in my native country of Spain when I got sick and had to stay home from school. Needless to say, I missed what would have been my first ever English lesson. The events of the next day, when I returned to school, have stuck to my memory until today.

Class time arrived and Don Javier, the school’s new English teacher, walked into the classroom, put his books down, and immediately started to ask a series of unintelligible questions to the students. To my surprise, my classmates had no problem understanding and answering his questions in English. As I prayed that Don Javier would not call on me, I looked at my classmates in astonishment. I could not believe that after only a day of class, they were already communicating in another language!

Rather than having a discouraging effect, that first experience instilled in me a deep desire to master the English language. This desire led me to live in three different English-speaking countries, and to become a foreign-language professor in the United States. Today, I have no doubt that learning a language has changed my life in ways that I could never have imagined.

Similarly, I am convinced that language-learning can be life-changing to American students in both their professional careers and their personal lives. Being fluent in another language not only opens doors in a job market that is more competitive than ever before, but also gives students greater insight into their own language and opens their minds to a world that is culturally and linguistically diverse.

In 1996, the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning were published as an answer to a concern from educators and the government about the role of foreign languages in American education. Furthermore, in 2006 the government called for an increase in the number of Americans that are fluent in critical-need languages. Surprisingly, and in spite of the emphasis at the federal level, foreign language study has not received the attention that it deserves in American education. Furthermore, over the past three decades, scholars in the language profession have called attention to the low numbers of African American students in foreign language programs in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 4.1% of the bachelor’s degrees in foreign languages were awarded to African Americans in 2006.

Personally, I believe that we, at Lincoln University, have a unique opportunity to turn this state of affairs around by increasing the percentage of African Americans who are fluent in a foreign language. At the departmental level, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to recruit new students. We emphasize the importance of language study not only in the classroom, but also on the entire campus with events such as Language Day, Language Night, the International Food Festival, and the Study Abroad Convocation. Over the years, we have shaped our curriculum so that it matches the latest research on language-teaching methods, and we have established ourselves as a vibrant, open, and friendly department. However, we cannot do this alone. We need the help of the entire Faculty and Administration to change the NCES gloomy figures. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to achieve this goal, and only through collaboration will we succeed in this endeavor.

Many in the Faculty have experienced learning another language, either by taking courses, traveling abroad, or talking to immigrants in their communities. For many, English is their second (or third, maybe fourth) language and they use it to conduct their professional life in the United States. I think that it would be very enriching if we all shared our thoughts and experiences about language learning in this blog. I’m very interested in reading your comments to this post. As a final point, I would like to thank Nancy Evans and Linda Stine for making the discussion possible through the creation of this blog.


  1. Language learning always came pretty easily to me (I was a French and German major in college), and I never thought too much about how I learned a foreign language. When I spent a year in China back in the 90's, however, I realized quickly how much of a visual learner I was. I couldn't get anywhere with the "speak and repeat" style of teaching that Chinese teachers used; I needed to be able to visualize the look of a word --see the letters on paper--to imprint it on my memory. Since the Chinese characters meant nothing to my confused Western eyes, and the same combination of letters could mean many different words depending on the tone with which they were pronounced, I couldn't use my visual sense at all and never got much beyond being able to stumble through a couple Chinese phrases (like "I am an American" as if anyone really doubted that in the first place!) So I came away with a renewed sense of the complexity of language teaching and learning and of the importance of knowing students' learning styles. I'll be interested in knowing about others' experiences.

  2. As the daughter of a childhood bilingual and French teacher (my mother) and an anthropologist who had great interest and skill in linguistics (my father), this is a topic very near and dear to me. In my lifetime I have learned – or at least studied – five languages other than my first language, English. Because of our posting limit, I’ll discuss only two of them below….
    My earliest “second language” was French. Although, to my unremitting regret, my mother chose not to raise her children as “childhood bilinguals” (which she herself was, having grown up in France with her expatriate American family until she was thirteen), she did, nevertheless, provide me with some formal French language lessons as I was growing up. The earliest were when I was in nursery school, I think. She was a graduate student in education at the time, and as part of her coursework she taught a group of preschoolers—once a week, I believe. Later, in junior high and high school I worked my way through a series of French grammar books, with her as my tutor.
    The summer after tenth grade I went to a summer school program at Phillips Academy, Andover, where French was one of several courses that I took. By studying French outside of my regular school I was able to supplement what was then the standard college prep curriculum at my high school (nearby Oxford), which included four years of Latin as the foreign language. Solely by accident, French ended up being my minor at Bryn Mawr College, simply because it turned out to be the subject after my major (anthropology) in which I had the most credits by the time I graduated.
    The closest I came to an “immersion” experience in French was the summer after my freshman year at college, when I traveled with my family to France for the summer. I say “closest” because it really was not an immersion experience, as I constantly fell back on English with my family. However, I do remember keeping a journal of the trip, in French, which greatly pleased my mother. I have always been more comfortable reading and writing than speaking French. I have a great French accent, thanks to my early lessons with my mother, but my spoken French is very halting (more so now, of course, because it has been many years since I have used it). I regret that I have not had a full immersion experience in French, such as that provided by a semester or year abroad while in college, and I think that anyone who has the opportunity to study abroad should do so.
    My experience learning Mandinka was totally different from my experience learning French, because I was learning Mandinka in the context of the culture and without a teacher or textbook. It was the year following my graduation from Bryn Mawr, and my husband and I were living in Gambia, West Africa, thanks to a grant that I had received from Bryn Mawr at graduation –the Commonwealth Africa Traveling Scholarship. We were living with a family of griots, Mandinka oral historians and musicians, in this instance, musicians of the kora, a 21-stringed harp. This language-acquisition experience was immersion without the benefit of book-learning – I came with absolutely no previous knowledge of Mandinka, and all I had (acquired after our arrival) were some vocabulary lists and a basic grammar written by an anthropologist who had done fieldwork in Gambia several decades before. I always hoped to have the opportunity to follow up my year learning Mandinka “in the field” with some kind of formal study of the language, but unfortunately that never happened, as I ended up choosing parenthood over graduate school and further pursuit of a career in anthropology.