Learning English: An affordable method that works
This is a good news story about language learning. This is also a good news story revealing that there are people who will actually admit they were wrong and will change their minds.
First the facts: Most native-born Americans can only read, write and speak one language and that is English. That is well and good because the ability to speak, read and write English is the key to success and upward mobility in our society. But in our increasingly global economy, the ability to speak and understand a second or even a third language would be very useful.
Unfortunately, when most Americans try to learn a second language the only language-learning method available to them is: bi-lingual education. In other words the one language-learning system that is known to work, “total immersion,” is not used. As a result, most public-school educated Americans have a few foreign language credits on their high school and/or college transcripts but couldn’t speak a foreign language if their lives depended on it.
In our English-speaking society, there is a good economic reason why the total-immersion system is not available to the vast majority: It is very expensive. Let’s take the German language for an example although French or Spanish or Italian would do as well.
To have total immersion in German in a public school, the entire faculty and staff would have to be fluent in German. All the textbooks and even the directional signs in the school would have to be in German. Every person on the school premises would have to speak German all the time.
Within nine months, virtually every student placed into this total-immersion German language environment would achieve near-native fluency in speaking German and would achieve a reading and writing proficiency sufficient to meet the U.S. Foreign Service proficiency level for assignment to a German-speaking country. But just imagine how much easier such language learning would be for children K through 12.
Children readily absorb whatever is around them. Children have fewer preconceptions than adults, so learning that there is more than one way to say something or write something is more easily accepted by children than by adults. In six months of total-immersion training, many children can go beyond fluency to mastery.
Two years ago, the people of California figured this out and voted to end bi-lingual education for students who do not speak English. Many so-called educators predicted disaster if bi-lingual classes were abandoned. They even accused the proponents of total-immersion of racism and trying to keep Spanish-speaking immigrants from learning English. The total-immersion proponents accused the bi-lingual lobby of trying to protect the jobs of a bunch of teachers who are poor at both English and Spanish.
But, in just two years, the English test scores for Hispanic second graders have risen from 28th in the nation to 19th. In math, Hispanic test scores have shot up from 41st to 27th nationally.
Public school superintendent, Ken Noonan, who founded the California Association of Bi-lingual Education (of all people) is now a convert to total-immersion. “I thought it would hurt kids,” said Noonan. “But the exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn – not pick up, but learn – formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would. Here are kids, within nine months in the first year, and they literally learned to read.”
Yes, while total immersion for English-speaking Americans in German, French, Spanish or Italian would be prohibitively expensive for our public schools to offer, it is not at all expensive for those who come here and need to learn English. In fact, we offer total-immersion in English without added cost.
The faculty and staff speak English. The textbooks and directional signs are in English. And, everyone on the school premises speaks English all the time. What a wonderful, total-immersion, English-learning environment!
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist, learned German in six months at the Army Language School at the ripe old age of 26.