THE traditional picture of the American tourist abroad, in a loud shirt, laden with cameras and wondering why no one speaks English, is yielding to a new reality. Many people today want to learn other languages, but there is an enormous gap between the abstract agreement with the idea that knowing a foreign language or two is a good thing and real, practical knowledge of those languages. Americans have always been a pragmatic people in a hurry. So we not only want to get to know a second language, we want to do it quickly. Unfortunately, it can't be done.
But Americans are changing. Many of us understand that not everyone abroad speaks English. We have also learned that business in today's small world is increasingly dependent on our ability to communicate with speakers of other languages.
Easy international communication has not only become a reality, it is almost instantaneous. Even where I teach, in rural Canton, New York, we can watch the news from Moscow or Mexico City. Frequently, articles in the press also tell us that tomorrow's executive will need to talk a second language and have foreign experience.
If you can really speak a second language, I doubt that you learned how in any of the elementary Spanish classes that I have taught in my thirty-plus years in the profession. Adding up all the hours of class and laboratory practice, a student in a first-year college language class has, at best, 130 or 140 hours of contact with the language. In order to attain a reasonable functional level of ability in French, 240 hours of study are required. German requires about 480 hours to reach the same level, and Japanese, some 720.
What these numbers mean is that in the US, we have had unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in a year or two of language study. No one with normal learning skills can become fluent in a second language as a result of such a short-term classroom experience.
The typical two-year college program, however, is a beginning. People who complete it should be able to conduct simple conversations in a second language, are usually able to get through a survival situation, and know the essential skill of how to ask questions.
What happens to these people when they actually get to Paris and find out that Pierre does not limit his use of French to vocabulary lessons 1-12 in the first-year text? How do Americans cope when they discover that Mariscol in Barcelona, just like speakers of English at home, fails to complete many of her sentences and jumps around from one tense to the other without any apparent reason?
It's important to help students of a second language develop strategies for dealing with the realities of usage. Language is creation and thus cannot always be predicted. Getting the gist of what Pierre is saying is more important than understanding every word.
Today's language classroom doesn't rely on a translation approach or the boring memorization of dialogues and patterns. Preparing for the rich variety of speech and writing in another language means providing opportunities to practice the language in numerous different contexts. It means developing accuracy while at the same time encouraging creation instead of rote repetition. The goal is communication.
No longer is the cat of my aunt under the table. Yesterday's stilted classroom language and textbooks have yielded to the presence of authentic, real materials. In today's classes, small groups of students work together in amazingly harmonious cacophony; the textbooks include timetables, poetry, magazine ads, and newspaper articles. The classroom contains a VCR and some time is spent almost every day watching news broadcasts, commercials, feature films, and even soap operas. Little or no English is used and there is practically no translation. In laboratory sessions, students may work on the computer or with an audio or video program. They write traditional compositions, but also postcards, shopping lists, and pamphlets.
Will this use of authentic language and materials reduce the time needed to achieve an acceptable level of proficiency? Is technology the answer? I'm afraid not. It is still necessary to spend those hundreds of hours practicing the language. But today's learner knows more about culture than ever, is competent at communicating in the language and is better prepared to deal with the realities of authentic discourse.
At last, large numbers of Americans are getting ready to live in the global village.