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Things You Should Know About Teaching American Students

Dani Barrow


When teaching American students a foreign language, you will face many difficulties specific to the nationality. While your stereotypical US American is haughty, stubborn, and patriotic to the point of being self-righteous, anyone who has chosen to learn a foreign language has probably put aside those personality traits if they even had them in the first place. However, the American education system is flawed, and this will reflect in the student’s ability to learn and grasp a foreign language. Here are some reasons why:

1. Foreign languages are not introduced early enough.

While some kids are lucky enough to go to private schools that teach children European languages such as French and Spanish early on, the American public school system does not require such education until secondary school (about the time the student is 13-15 years of age). Not only is it harder for a student to learn at such a late age, but in primary school it is drilled into the American child’s head that they live in a country that is “number 1.” They are taught that they have more freedom than anyone else in the world and a sense of entitlement is set in place. So by the time students are required to take a foreign language, that signature American (as well as the universal youthful) haughtiness has kicked in and led them to believe that they are better than their education. When they finally are given a chance to expand their minds, their pride gets in the way and they learn their lessons halfheartedly, if at all. American students were not taught how to be open to learning a foreign language; so even if the desire is there, as a teacher you must also instill the skills necessary for learning in addition to the material being taught.

2. Americans are not taught to speak their own language correctly.

When I was in school I was lucky enough to be considered “advanced” so I received extra attention in English reading and grammar, but most children are not afforded such opportunities. This is why in a country where the majority of the population speaks English, most students graduate ignorant of the structural rules of the language and have very limited vocabularies. Even students who are born into families that speak a language other than English are forced into “ESL” classes where they are not educated on the proper grammatical rules of their own language and are given the bare minimum necessary to get by speaking English in American society. While some schools address these problems (I have worked in Texas public schools where ESL classes are taught both proper Spanish and English grammar to primary students), most do not.

3. Americans are taught that English is the most important language.

Living in America, I have always been surrounded by people—even family—who do not understand why foreign languages are utilized. For instance, I once had to explain to an uncle why there were English, Spanish, and French instructions on his stereo assembly instructions based on the existence of NATO—and he did not care (Fun fact, though: there is no official language of the United States of America). English is the most commonly used thanks to our Anglo colonizers, but when the constitution was written the forefathers left out any clause declaring an official language of the States. Nevertheless, Americans feel that English is the most important language in the world and if you visit the country you should be able to speak it. The hypocrisy of this is multi-dimensional; but the sentiment is true. In addition, there was a trend in my generation (the early Millenials, if you must know) where families who spoke languages other than English did not teach their children their native tongues in order to properly “Anglicize” them. I have a friend from a Mexican family in which his parents and grandparents speak fluent Spanish, but refused to speak it in from of him or his sister so that they may blend in better with American society. This trend has subsided as the global marketplace has expanded, but if you’re teaching anyone over the age of 21 you might be surprised to find that a young man of Hispanic descent has less knowledge of his heritage language than you might expect. This lack of bilingualism hinders them in the acquisition of any additional languages.

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

So if you find yourself working with a class of American students trying to acquire a new language, keep these facts in mind. Also, do not hold them against them. It is not an individual’s fault that the system imposed on them let them down. Instead, try and find a way to tap into an American’s most prominent emotion: pride. Make an American feel like their willingness to learn sets them apart and the confidence you’ll instill will inhibit their learning potential more than anything.

What about you? Do you agree with the information presented above? Share your thoughts with us; we would love to hear from you!

About the author

Dani is a writer and traveller living in Buenos Aires but is originally from Texas. She collects post cards, languages, and tattoos. She can also find her way around a kitchen.