Watch your language

Around the United States, the latest word on languages goes something like this: Russian, German, and French are out - Spanish, Latin, and anything Asian are in.

To one who has stumbled through a weekly Japanese class since January, this is comforting.

Language lessons often begin with the niceties: "How do you do. I'm glad to meet you." Hajime-mashite. Dozo yoroshiku.

Things get a bit less polite when it comes to discussing the merits of, say, French vs. Spanish, for example - as recent newspaper articles and letters show.

Debating the "historic" shift toward Spanish and Chinese is a good idea. But while the topic is on everyone's mind, perhaps we should also focus on bigger-picture issues, like how to keep language a high priority. It's not enough just to worry about what college students are taking. Language training in lower grades needs to be monitored as well. Massachusetts took a step in that direction last week, when the state Department of Education proposed teaching a second language starting in elementary school.

It's clear Americans are willing to go the extra mile for language, as Chinese-immersion charter schools and Japanese classes taught in high schools suggest. As we push forward, though, maybe the time has come to review our methods - to figure out why Americans seem to retain so much less than do students in other countries.

Perhaps it's our approach. My Japanese sensei may be onto something there. At the end of one recent class, he urged us to continue to study. Then he corrected himself: "Not study - enjoy."

*E-mail: campbellk@ csps.com

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