November 23, 2006

Why Americans can't learn foreign languages

What struck me most of all about Lawrence Henry's piece on accents was something Mark didn't even mention. Mr Henry notes that in American English a totally unstressed vowel is reduced to a sound usually written down as "uh" (the sound linguists call schwa); and he goes on:

It's a rampant American fault and accounts for our relatively poor performance learning foreign languages. "Effect" becomes "uh-FECT." Cassette becomes "kuh-SET."

An accurate enough phonetic observation: the first syllable in these words is pronounced with a schwa, whereas many other languages have no schwas at all, in any words. My horse laugh at the quoted remark comes not from this phonetic fact but from the astoundingly dopey idea that it is a "fault" that provides the key to the riddle of why Americans don't do so well at learning foreign languages.

Steve Jones points out me, for example, that western varieties of Catalan do not have schwa, but in Central Catalan (of Barcelona) there is reduction that makes schwa the most frequent vowel in actual speech; yet this doesn't correlate with any perceptible difference in language-learning ability Catalan speakers from different regions of eastern Spain. Henry's remark about how vowel reduction to schwa "accounts for our relatively poor performance" really is astoundingly dumb.

Why we Americans, with our staggering wealth of resources and (for example) the most highly ranked graduate schools in the world, do so poorly by any measure on our command of foreign tongues is a complex question with a mainly sociological, political, historical, educational, and social-psychological answer. (Never forget that John Kerry is said to have had to attempt concealment of his fluent French to avoid bad press during his Presidential run, and Nebraska in the early 1920s had a law making foreign language instruction illegal, and in that very same state as recently as 2003 a father was threatened by a judge with loss of the right to visit his child if he didn't speak English during his visits... This country could not exactly be said to be uniformly friendly toward polyglotism. Nor does it always honor the accomplishment of those immigrants and Native Americans who speak a heritage language at home and English elsewhere — in fact punishment of Native American children for speaking their Amerindian language while in school used to be commonplace.) It's certainly quite a bit more complex than anything traceable to the reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa. Don't give up on taking foreign language lessons simply on the grounds that as an American you are doomed to failure by your learned vowel reduction habits.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 23, 2006 01:34 PM