As I was driving to the office today, I heard a radio sports commentator interviewing a golf expert about the recent effort of the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) to require golfers to learn English better if they want to play on the tour. Apparently this new ruling is due to the increase in the numbers of professional golfers coming to play from South Korea. The golf expert commented that he thinks this reflects xenophobia in the association – fear of foreigners – and is sympathetic to the challenge adults have in assimilating and learning a foreign language. He pointed out that just like American baseball players in Japan, the golfers tend to stick together where it’s comfortable. I might add, it’s somewhat hard to imagine our American baseball players becoming fluent in Japanese, although I’m sure it happens on occasion.
I was pleased to hear these two sports talk people demonstrate insight into the challenges anyone faces in learning a second language, especially as an adult. And even more, they recognized the greater challenge for people from different language families trying to learn English (for example, how much easier it is for a Spanish speaker than a Korean speaker). At the same time, the two commentators repeated the common but mistaken truism that adults cannot learn a second language quickly, and that in comparison it’s so much easier for a young child to do so. This is a belief that is almost universal around the world, except for those who have themselves proven the adage wrong. It’s one of my pet peeves. In comparison with children, most adults actually learn the totality of a foreign language extremely quickly under the right circumstances and with the right motivation and effort.
The LPGA’s effort to force foreign players to assimilate reflects the increasing challenge of integrating people together in a multilingual and mobile world. Is the solution for each country to force foreigners to become fluent in the host country’s language? This could mean, for example, forcing American business people in China to learn Chinese. Oddly enough, when it comes to golf and English, A.C.E. has some relevant experience. Nearly 19 years ago we were asked to develop an English program in the Pacific Northwest for several groups of young tennis players and golfers from Japan and Korea. In that case the players in training needed to learn English full time and fit in their sports training on the side. The program went reasonably well for several years, but eventually the numbers of trainees declined as the fad faded and we closed down the program. But from the experience we learned several things.
1. The quality of the language learning was proportional to the attention and focus given to it. If a player in training cared only about the sports training, the language training was not very effective.
2. Putting language learners into an isolated place to learn a language is not an effective model. The trainees had little opportunity to interact with native English speakers and they stayed in dormitories instead of out in the community. It wouldn’t have been too different if the program had been run in Japan or Korea.
3. By comparison, students of almost any age in our regular intensive English institutes (in Bozeman and Seattle) routinely develop strong English capability in a matter of months. The typical student is able to function well in an English language environment after no more than 1 year in our programs.
As I listened to the radio this morning, it struck me that Americans in general do not have any idea how much effort the people of Korea (as well as many other nations) are putting into educating their children in English. At the present time, the government of Korea is spending tens of billions of dollars to develop English proficiency across the country. By comparison, the U.S. spends very little on foreign language education. In fact, foreign language education in the U.S. has been on the decline in recent decades. What I’d like to see in the U.S. is an approach to globalization by which we emphasize the need for multilingual capability all around. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If every country commits to greater multilingual capability, we’ll find it much easier to integrate here and there.
Xenophobia won’t go away any time soon. But much of it is misplaced anxiety. The more that ordinary people have a chance to meet people from another culture face to face, the less anxious they become about the “xenos” in our midst.