Bad Education: Why Americans are hated abroad

July 1, 2007

For people over the age of thirteen, learning to speak a foreign language is very difficult. In part, this is due to the fact that during adolescence, a number of changes (seem to) occur in the brain which seem to cement the way one “thinks” in a language. Yet, also confounding matters is that students in formal classes rarely experience the same degree of immersion or the opportunities to practice speaking that young children often receive when exposed to a foreign environment. As a result, despite the fact that Mr. Notwithabang… spent many hours studying a number of languages during high school and college, his facility in speaking them is fairly poor.

Thankfully, a friend recently introduced him to the Pimsleur method for learning languages. Though far from perfect, the Pimsleur method is a very good supplement to university-style classes, which are generally focused on reading and grammar comprehension. The brief lessons of the method are based primarily on practicing speaking (quickly), and follow a system of graded-interval recall, whereby a student learns and reviews words at carefully separated intervals that increase over time. While there is no formal reading component to the lessons, they do fit admirably well onto an ipod. Although, as I have learned, trying to do them on a treadmill at the gym is a great way to help make your responses reflexive (thanks to the cognitive effort needed to keep pace), but an even greater way to clear out the machines around you in a ten-foot radius.

The Pimsleur lessons also attempt to integrate some cultural education by tailoring the various speaking scenarios in later lessons to culturally relevant situations. However, I’ve noticed that while the linguistic aspects of these teaching vignettes are spot-on, the attitudes that they subtly inculcate might not be in students’ best interest. For example, a later lesson of the Hebrew program goes something like this:

Narrator: You are in a hotel restaurant and there is a woman sitting by herself at the table next to you. Say hello. *pause*

Woman: Hello.

Narrator: Ask her how she is. *pause*

Woman: I’m fine, thanks. And you?

Narrator: Tell her that you’re very well. *pause*

Narrator: Now, ask her if she would like to have dinner with you this evening. *pause*

Woman: No, thank you.

Narrator: Now, ask her if she would like to have dinner with you earlier this evening. *pause*

Woman: No, thank you.

Narrator: Now, ask her if she would like to get a drink with you this evening. *pause*

Woman: No.

Narrator: Now, ask her iif she would like to have a drink with you at your place. *pause*

Woman: You don’t understand.

Narrator: Ask her if she can’t have a drink with you. *pause*

Woman: No. No. You really don’t understand. I don’t *want* to get a drink with you!

While its debatable whether the folks writing the lessons are simply misogynists who really can’t take no for an answer, or are simply trying to help their students fit in by having them mimic the tenacity of an average Israeli guy, one can’t help but wonder if they are just taking a modern spin on the old Monty Python Tobacconist sketch…

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One Response to “Bad Education: Why Americans are hated abroad”

  1. Annie Says:

    I love that Pimsleur teaches you to say “no, I don’t want to go back to your place for a drink” in every language that I’ve tried. I can only confirm for French, Italian, Chinese, and Hebrew, but still…


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