Learning Foreign Languages or Just Learning to Play the School Game?

One of my current projects is to redo the HoltGWS.com website and to scan all the issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine and put them online; I'm about halfway through this project as I write this. It is now ten years since we stopped publishing GWS and I'm only now able to look at all these papers, audio and video recordings, books, and back issues with fresh eyes. I've had to organize these materials several times since 2001 as we downsized the company, put many of Holt's papers in a research archive at the Boston Public Library, and sorted and moved boxes from different colleagues' homes to mine. To be honest, it was often emotionally difficult for me to go through these materials in the past—so many memories, friends who've died, children who've grown up—but recently I've been invigorated by engaging with this material. I'm struck by how relevant all the writing in GWS remains—so many issues are the same for homeschoolers in 2011 compared to 1977: Are my kids really learning if I'm not teaching? How will they get into college if they want to go? How do I deal with skeptical school officials and relatives? Further, many of the comments John Holt made about learning at home seem even more important today, and I'll be highlighting some of those in later entries. But what really excited me this week is the discovery of a cassette of John being interviewed on a Boston radio station about the "A Nation At Risk" report in 1983. John spends nearly an hour talking about school and school reform, with just a few mentions of homeschooling. I'm in the process of digitizing this interview but I discovered this transcription of a section from that interview that ran in Growing Without Schooling 51. Donna Richoux, the editor of GWS then, followed John's radio comments with earlier writing by John about learning foreign languages in school.

First, from the WBOS interview in 1983:

Q. Does it alarm you that the report ("A Nation At Risk) described that not one state has any kind of requirements for foreign language?

JH: Not at all. The whole foreign language thing in schools is a big shuck from the word go. If you want kids to learn foreign languages, send them to places where they speak those Languages. I taught for a while at a private school here in Boston, a private secondary school, very good one, small, lots of money, very, very bright kids, very capable teachers. We had a French teacher there, a native-born Frenchwoman, an extremely competent woman. She liked the kids, the kids liked her, she had all the latest jazz: language labs, audio-visual materials, all the latest techniques. She wrote a report to the head of the school. She said. "Children take French in this school for four years, and these are very bright kids with all the best, and they don't learn as much French as they’d learn if they spent three months in the country.”

Q: How are they going to do that? I mean, in a rich private school I can understand. But what about in a public school in the United States?

JH: What's the point of teaching it? If you're living in a part of the country where there are—this is true in many parts of the country—let us say Spanish-speaking groups, or here Italian, you know you've got Iots of people in Boston who speak Italian - if you want kids to learn Italian, send them down to the North End and let them talk to people who speak Italian. But generally speaking, human beings learn what they have a need for, what they feel a need for. We‘re not good at learning stuff because somebody says, "Hey, someday you may need it, someday it may come in handy.” When we see a connection between real life and this stuff that we need to learn, then we're good at learning. 

And from a 1968 paper based on questions asked by teachers:

Q. If learning is best when one needs it, why has foreign language learning been emphasized at the early primary stage for total contact with the foreign tongue?

JH: For two reasons. The first is the assumption that since children learn their own language best when young, they will learn foreign languages in school best when young. The assumption is false. The child learning his own language has a hundred practical reasons for learning; a child learning a foreign language in school has no practical reason for learning it. The second reason is, quite frankly, that the modern language lobby is powerful in education these days. It has been able to create a situation in which schools and teachers feel they have to teach foreign languages early, whether they want to or not, and whether or not this leads to any useful or lasting results . . .