July 13, 2008

How many can walk the talk?

Does anybody know of any reliable statistics on what percentages of American adults who don't have family members who are native speakers of a foreign language or who haven't lived abroad can carry on a conversation in a foreign language? In other words, what percentage of American adults who learned a foreign language solely through the American educational system have maintained this skill into adulthood?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Most of the people I know who have become fluent in a foreign language have learned it on their own or partially on their own. A common example, people who took a couple of years of high school Spanish or a year or two of college Spanish, but never attained fluency or anything close to fluency, end up working in a hospital, or in the construction industry, and gradually attain fluency through their employment. Sometimes the employer provides additional training or tuition reimbursement for the target language.

My daughter speaks fluent French, but she attended a French-American school for a couple of years in elementary school, took French in high school and college, and spent a semester in France and traveled there again after graduation.

Gathering meaningful statistics in this area is going to be very tough. I personally can't think of anybody that I have ever known who attained true fluency simply by starting the language at the junior high or high school level and plugging away at it until fluent.

A few elementary schools have some sort of introduction to Spanish or French, and although this probably helps people attain a better accent if they keep up with the language, they usually just teach a handful of words and phrases at the elementary level, and it isn't that much of an advantage when true foreign-language classes start at the junior high level.

The junior high school I attended (in the rural south in the 70s) didn't offer any foreign language classes at all.

Grumpy Old Man said...

I'm one of the few people I know who've managed to do that. I learned Spanish in HS and can still speak and read pretty well, although I never lived in a Spanish-speaking country (other than Nw York City and California).

I learned Portuguese without instruction, by living in Brazil, and actually speak it better than Spanish.

French, on the other hand, I can read fluently and can communicate, but not with the same fluency. I never used it other than to read some novels and occasionally a website.

I think second and third language-learning ability is very variable, and may not correlate much with general intelligence.

Very few Americans, I'd bet, who don't have family connections to a second language, achieve fluency--unless they live somewhere where they have to learn and use the language.

Anonymous said...

Of what significance is this? Does anyone learn decent conversational-level foreign languages in a classroom either in the US or elsewhere?

NE Asians are generally terrible conversational English speakers despite plenty of hard work and helpful (for languages) route memorization schooling only lead most to know how to read or sometimes write.

The most multilingual countries like the Netherlands are often forced to learn languages (especially English) if they want a job or be plugged into anything but the narrowest of culture (TV, movies, music, etc).

What makes you think American foreign language instruction is any less efficient than others in the world. We just don't have the need or exposure.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other commenters. My impression has been that most U.S. language instruction is geared toward reading ability rather than speaking. And that's a realistic goal, since attaining meaningful fluency normally requires prolonged exposure, usually in a speaking environment. Those Europeans who impress us with their English ability have often studied English for up to 8 years, and have American movies and English TV to hone their skills.

Interesting story. A few years ago the Dutch minister of education actually proposed that university instruction be switched to English, since so much academic work was done in English anyway. He was shouted down, of course, but the point was that by the time most Dutch students got into a university they had studied English to the point that they could handle university level academic work in that language. Special situation.

Anonymous said...

I have read that mastery of a �substantial� skill (i.e., piano, Spanish) require from 5000 to 7000 hours of practice. The American school year is about 36 weeks. No more than 10 hours per week could be allotted to Spanish (class time plus homework) so you get 360 hours per year. After three years you have only about 1000 hours of practice.

This is not nearly enough time. My estimate is that, leaving aside a few extraordinarily talented and motivated people, the number of Americans who have learned a foreign language in school (only) is approximately ZERO.

Mike said...

I suspect you already know the broad-stroke answer to this.

But I would submit that bilingualism may have significant cognitive benefits-- this link comes with some caveats and lots of unknowns, but see e.g., http://www.canada.com/topics/bodyandhealth/story.html?id=ba0d1591-1799-48be-abd5-f5e62cf154fe

non-quantitative fratboy said...

For children of immigrants, foreign-language ability is a lot lower than you'd expect:

See table 1 on page 43; without Hispanohablantes in the mix, only 7.8% said they spoke their parents' language "very well".

Americans living abroad seem to do much better, though this probably depends on the country. E.g. the Russian 2002 census recorded that 1033 out of the 1280 Americans in the country could speak Russian:

However, there's only a few hundred thousand Americans living abroad at any given time, and a lot of those are former immigrants who went back to their countries of origin after securing a U.S. passport.

H. said...

I am pleased to report that I am a case in point. My family are all native English speakers. I began studying French at the age of 10, in England, where my father was pursuing doctoral studies. After that, I had four years of high school French, self-studied some in college and early grad school. Finally, I minored in French for my doctorate. I never visited France until I was 24, but when I went, I found I could get by very well with the speaking skills that were an extension of my reading level. I knew, by the way, a number of other grad students who achieved the same thing in various European tongues.

Anonymous said...

We should all learn Proto-Nostratic.

Anonymous said...

The state department regularly trains people in other languages. They say it takes 600 hours to be proficient in Spanish.

I speak spanish pretty well and am taking lessons every day and I'm nowhere near 600 hours yet.

Any American I've met who actually speaks Spanish properly has lived overseas.

ERM said...

Americans living abroad seem to do much better, though this probably depends on the country. E.g. the Russian 2002 census recorded that 1033 out of the 1280 Americans in the country could speak Russian.

Hmmm...at what level I wonder? Russian is a relatively difficult language. Certainly, as you go on to say, a lot of this number must be Russian former expats to the U.S., but even so. A good friend of mine lives in Moscow. He speaks Russian quite well -- studied it since university, etc. -- but still well short of fluency and he gets frustrated pretty often, and I get the impression he is something of an overachiever by normal expat standards. Although he works in an English language office, he mixes with a pretty heavily Russian crowd, parties his head off mostly with Russians, etc. -- all the normal fluency building stuff.

I live now in the Czech Republic, where they speak a broadly similar language, and I can tell you that there aren't very many Americans who are very good at it, even among the ones who have been here a long time. If they work for a large Western company, the odds they can speak it at all rapidly approach zero. Now, after one year I can get by in many basic situations, read signs and notices pretty well, but I wouldn't answer "yes" to a census questionnaire asking if I "could speak Czech". Not by a long shot.

Learning a language is hard bloody work, easy as that. This is not a very good reason not to make kids try it a little bit anyway, though, as some here seem to think. Most people aren't going to be engineers but we still make them study algebra. (Which I haven't used once since 11th grade, I should say.) Aside from being excellent brain work, part of public education is, or should be, exposing kids to a lot of different areas of endeavour so they can figure out what they like and have some aptitude for, in the (apparently vain) hope they don't waste too much time in university trying to find out. Say what you will, the U.S. will still always need linguists, and probably more of them than we do today.

KingM said...

I speak Spanish fluently and French at a high conversational level and have never lived overseas. I have studied quite a bit on my own and am not a shy person, so I speak my languages whenever I have the chance. I also travel to French and Spanish speaking countries every year or so for vacation.

Anonymous said...

Yes, my girlfriend.

She was the only child of a divorced mother back in the 60's, when it wasn't really common. She spent a lot of time with her widowed grandmother while her mom worked. Because her grandmother spoke broken English to her while speaking Italian to some friends and neighbors, my girl picked up the language, in which she remains fairly fluent.

Great story from this: we frequently stop at an old school Italian pastry shop after dining in Boston. There are lots of old Italian gents sitting around outside smoking, chatting in Italian and drinking their coffee, and pretty ladies will get a comment or two, judging by the "bella" I hear sometimes when we walk in. One time she actually stopped and jabbered away at one of them in Italian, and all conversation stopped. The guy then jabbered away at her while sort of bowing while seated.

When we were inside, I asked her what she said. She had told the guy that his comment crossed the line, and if she told her rather large boyfriend what he said, he'd have his neck snapped like a chicken. She said she was satisfied by his profuse and flowery apology.

The funny part is now when we go for coffee, all the old guys greet her in Italian and treat her like some sort of daughter.


Dmytro Kornilov said...

Does anybody here believe the stories of the people who can speak 10+ languages? They say Revilo Oliver could read and write in 11. He was an expert on Sanskrit, taught Greek and Latin, translated a book from Italian for his PHD and wrote articles in French. Impressive man and at the same time a William Pierce style white nationalist.

The world record holder is a Brazilian Lebanese who knows parts of about 60 or so languages.

To me, the standard for speaking a language is being able to read great works of literature. I doubt there are people out there who can do that for more than a handful.

jmr said...

Does British English count as a foreign language? I can sort of understand what the Brits say, if they speak slowly and don't use a lot of slang.

Anonymous said...

I think most people don't read great works of literature in their own language, let alone others.

Rockerbolt said...

I'm a translator and I work in six different languages. I've dabbled in a few others, and if I really pushed it, maybe I could get up to ten or eleven. But what gets you is the upkeep. Languages are very definitely a case of "use it or lose it." You can't just learn a language in class like long division and then it's fixed in your mind forever: you have to keep it up and even improve on it. Although real life tends to be messier than this, imagine keeping a regular practice schedule of half an hour day per language for the rest of your life. That's three hours a day and it's not really enough. I just about had to become a translator to justify the expenditure of time, and get my practice from my work.

I had a discussion about this a while back with a fellow translator who has many more years in the business than I do. He agreed that six languages probably was some kind of practical maximum for being able to do justice to all of them in terms of learning them and keeping them up, though some individuals might max out at fewer and some might be able to handle more.

As for people who claim a dozen or more languages, it might be interesting to give them a test or at least inquire further. Then again, I have encountered people who were very good at this kind of thing and really made me realize my limitations. Revilo P. Oliver was extremely intelligent to begin with, and he was a university professor whose education and career were in languages; he spent his whole day immersed in them. So he might well have mastered eleven or so over a lifetime. The rest of us mere mortals don't have that many hours in a day.

As for Steve's original question, the answer is probably very few. I can't say I've known anyone who ever got to the point of being able to do anything useful in a foreign language by just taking routine US high school and college courses. At some point they had to break out and study it on their own, spend time in a country where it's spoken, or otherwise get additional practice and exposure to it than in a regular classroom.

That doesn't stop a lot of people from thinking or claiming they "know" a language just because they took a couple of years of it in college. And because they've never spent time in a country where the language is spoken, they don't even realize themselves what's involved. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen that deer in the headlights look when someone claiming to speak or read a language is actually put to the test. Hilariously (and sadly), they often mutter something about it not being the same "dialect" they were taught in school and change the subject...

Bottom line: Like a lot of people, and this is incredible for someone who has actually spent time in a foreign country, Obama seems to have an inflated, highly optimistic, and simply unrealistic notion of what high school language instruction can accomplish.

none of the above said...

I'm reasonably good with Spanish, though not fluent. That's with some classes in school, some classes on my own, and a lot of independent work with stuff like trying to get a substantial chunk of my news from spoken or written Spanish sources.

When I have time, I attend a weekly Spanish conversation group. It's striking to me that more than half the regular participants in that group are foreigners. A few gringos like me attend, too, but most gringos aren't going to work that hard at getting/maintaining language skills.

And I'll second the previous comments about maintaining those skills--if I get too busy to keep up practicing, I quickly see my ability to converse or even read complicated things in Spanish drop through the floor.

Ronduck said...

THe US should drop the foriegn language requirement and replace it with Latin.

Latin meets all the bureaucratic requirements for language instruction:
1. There is no foreign country to embarrass Americans by showing how bad they speak it.
2. It serves no purpose in a society where neighboring states speak the same language.
3. It makes people feel they have accomplished something in school: "I can speak the same language as Caesar!"
4. It might improve the average Americans comprehension of English.
5. There is no large group of hostile immigrants who speak the language in or country nor a hostile country nearby that wishes us harm that can speak it.

We seriously need to improve English language instruction in this country, I saw a scandinavian website with better English than many Americans. Besides, canning foreign language instruction will help us kill Spanish in the schools.