Why can’t New York City kids master the English language?

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There has been more and more discussion recently about the sad state of English usage by American students. This apparently is not just a matter of elementary, middle or high schools. Students are entering college without the necessary tools to handle the language.

In general, remedial courses have become a large fixture in higher education. Clearly, too many students can’t read, write or speak their own language properly.

In my column, “I Sit and Look Out,” I have quoted successful business leaders, who want to hire people for jobs, who say that while many of the candidates may have the technical fit for the jobs, they are very deficient in the writing and speaking of English. In other words, they may not be able to communicate with customers, to say nothing of the other employees.

These business people were talking about Americans whose first and perhaps only language is English. These cases were not about English as a second language. That is an entirely different matter, as I have tried to point out many times.

What are the reasons for this decline? As a non-educator, I will leave the experts to comment on this from their point of view. I’m sure they can and may do so at great length. After all, that’s what they get paid for. Punditry and pontificating are the rules of the day.

But as a native-born New Yorker educated in the city public schools and its universities, I think telling about my experience may help.

One of the reasons for the decline in English, some experts tell us, is that not enough parents read to their children from the time the kids can make sense of what is happening.

In my family, there were no books, not even a Bible. My mother, an immigrant who could print her name but was otherwise illiterate, probably sang to me at bedtime (like my father, she had a good voice), but she couldn’t read to me. My father, whose father died when he was 6, had to leave school at 11 and go to work. He read The Daily News and The Daily Mirror every day, but he never read them to me. My sister, nine years my senior, was a great reader, but she never read me to sleep or at any other time.

But my parents made sure that Elizabeth and I did not miss school, did our homework and respected our teachers. They wanted us to get as much education as possible.

Another reason for the decline, some experts think, is that children are not getting into the educational system young enough.

When I started school, on Pitt Street, on the Lower East Side, I was 6 years old and I went into first grade. There was no kindergarten and certainly no pre-school.

We moved to Borough Park in my first year of school and I went to a school on 14th Avenue, which has been a girls’ yeshiva for decades now. That public school is where I learned to read and write. As far as I know, there was no kindergarten or pre-school in that school at the time. We got history books and readers that we could take home and I devoured them.

The first book that I remember being mine, although it was on loan from the local public library by my sister, was a story of Napoleon’s son. I remember how thrilled I was with all of these books, even though they would go back to school and to the library. By now, I was also reading my father’s tabloid newspapers every day.

Borough Park was a middle-class or perhaps lower-middle-class neighborhood, what we would call blue collar today. I cannot remember seeing books in other people’s homes, although I might have missed them, but somehow everyone I knew seemed able to read. I can’t remember that the words “pre-school” even existed.

Another reason for the decline, some experts think, is that schools are not air-conditioned.

The only places that had air conditioning in my youth were the motion picture theaters and on very hot days, we kids would stand in front of the open outside doors of the Loews Borough Park and get the breezes.

I don’t know of anyone at the time who had an electric fan, let alone an air conditioner. The schools I attended, including JHS 73 in Maspeth and Newtown High School, didn’t have them. Were there hot days in class? Of course, there were. But, luckily, the windows could be opened (for what that might have been worth). We did have central heating in the colder months. I have no idea about the age of the schools I attended, but they were there many years before I was.

Let me make some things clear:

I think it is wonderful for parents to read to their children. In turn, in the dotage of the parents, their children may read to them.

The idea of getting kids into school as early as possible is a worthwhile objective.

I think the idea of a good physical environment in school is important and air conditioning can be part of that. I am delighted that in our condo we can control our own central air conditioning and heating system.

But, after you have done these things, I think we have to consider other factors.

Has the professional level of teaching fallen in recent decades? If so, why? Has public respect for teachers fallen as well? If so, why?

Do we make our children understand that we need to have citizens who can comprehend and speak and write the language of our country, whether it is “official” or not? If not, why not?

As I have stated many times in the decade I have been writing for The TimesLedger Newspapers, I am one of millions of New Yorkers who profited from a system of education which helped so many to live a good life. That includes City College (which was still free when I went there), Columbia University and Fordham University School of Law.

At CCNY, where I was an evening session student, I was required to take four courses (one hour each) of public speaking, before graduation. One semester, my program was such that the public speaking course I needed was on a Wednesday evening and I got up to Hamilton Heights for that one course only. Each course was worth one credit.

As indicated, we have many experts giving us many excuses for what has made this nation less educated than it should be or has been in the past. Perhaps we need other experts, who can think outside the box.

The answers might not be pretty, but they may help us to understand why we are where we are and how to do much better.

What, truly, are the reasons for this decline?

After all, English is the lingua franca of the world. Shouldn’t everyone in this richest country in the world be able to use it and use it well?

Posted 3:16 pm, September 16, 2013
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Reader feedback

no advantage from Queens says:
There is no reward for learning English. The natives do not learn it. Nobody cares about grammar - people use spellcheck.
Sept. 16, 2013, 7:13 pm
Joe Moretti from Jamaica says:
Well this is a major problem. English is the language of the United States and everyone, especially immigrants, should know the language well enough to speak it and communicate. When you become a citizen of the US, you must pass an English test.

The problem in this country is that we have signs in all different languages, when you make a phone call to an institution it asks what language, the election polls are in various languages, etc. Enough of this. There is not any incentive to learn the English language. We need to say that in 3 years everything will be in English, no more various signs of different languages, etc. So you are forced to learn the language of the United States, period.

It amazes me how many people in the United States do not know the English language at all. You talk about a barrier to success in this country. If you are going to live in the United States, LEARN THE ENGLISH. If you are going to live in any country, learn the native language.
Sept. 17, 2013, 8:46 am
Kenneth Kowald from No Holds Barred says:
Thank you both for your comments. In one of my columns, I noted that when I served on a Queens Grand Jury, one of those called asked to be dismissed, because he might not understand what was going on. He was a new citizen--he had to be to be called--and the judge made clear that he would serve, since he had to pass a test to gain naturalization.
I wonder, too, how immigrants many years ago managed to have their children learn English without the educational tools we use today.
Perhaps there are some teachers out there who might comment on this. Brickbats or praise are good for debate and understanding this or any other problem, I think.
Kenneth Kowald
Sept. 17, 2013, 10:56 am
Arlene from Bayside says:
It is truly disturbing to hear the decline or shear neglect in learning English especially for the natives here in the U.S. I am 38 born and raised in Bayside. I feel as though there is much more distractions today than in the past. By distractions, I refer to too much technology in our possession as well as other extracurricular activities children as well as adults are focusing on rather than picking up a book and reading. Teachers (in my opinion) are not going the extra mile to enforce it due to DOE restrictions, etc.

For those who are immigrants here, we as Americans seem to be catering to them by making it "easy" to get used to this country. When my parents (both immigrants) came to this country 45 years ago, they had no option or conveniences at their feet, they HAD TO learn the English language and be able to stand on their own two feet. As Joe pointed out, there are signs in multiple languages for so many things out there (voting, NYC geared publications, libraries, etc.), why would they bother to learn when we (Americans) cater to them. WE need to put an end to this nonsense and impose the need to learn ENGLISH in order to move forward. This country will soon be taken over by the outside world if we don't do something now!
Sept. 17, 2013, 11:47 am
Turay from The Netherlands says:
If am right,there is a law in the US that says until someone becomes a citizen is not eligible to participate in any educational institution.
If so,this is one of the major factors that are causing language problems (barries) this kind of stuff is not only an US problem,but all-over the so-called western countries Europe is the worst of it kind,immigrants are held for so many years before granted a stay permit if any then struggles started by then you already late.
Sept. 18, 2013, 1:29 am
Kenneth Kowald from No Holds Barred says:
Turay: There is no such law in the United States. You do not have t o be a citizen to be a student in public or private institutions.
Learning a new language is hard. English is especially tough, not for the grammar, but for pronunciation, since the language has come from so many sources.
My wife and I have most pleasant memories of our trips to Holland. One night, in a bed and breakfast place in a small town, we heard some people talking on the narrow street below our windows. We could not make out the words, but the rhythm and tone reminded us of New York speech.
And, why not? It was the Dutch who founded this city and they brought with them many ideas of freedom, which we cherish to this day. If I recall correctly, there was not a ghetto in Amsterdam, unlike most cities. And, if I am correct, Rembrandt lived for a time on a street whose name translates, I believe, to Jewish Street.
I very much admire those European countries where English is taught, some times because it is mandatory. As I have written, it is the lingua franca of the world and those who have their students learn it--and learn it well--are in the forefront of eductional innovation, it seems to me.
Thank you for your comments. It is good to have an international audience!
Kenneth Kowald
Sept. 18, 2013, 3:03 pm
Zigzagiando from Baltimore says:
The critical sentence here is about the parents making sure the kids did not miss school, did their homework and wanted their children to get an education. This is not always the case. Some parents are unable, overwhelmed, or simply unwilling to support their kids. When I was mentoring a Teach for America teacher one day a 5th grade student responded to a request from the teacher with something like, "My mamma says I don't got to pay no attention to nothin' no white lady tells me." After picking her jaw up from the floor, what's a teacher to do? Fortunately, that wasn't one of the days when the announcement was made over the loudspeaker to please not send any more students to the office because they were overwhelmed.
Sept. 21, 2013, 7:58 pm
Kenneth Kowald from No Holds Barred says:
Zigzagiando: Thank you for your comments. Yes, the parents need to see to that their children respect the teachers--even the not-so-great ones--as long as they are doing their job. I'm not sure how we go about getting this done. We have had a couple or more generations in this country, I believe, where learning in general seems to take a back seat. If a parent never learned respect for teachers, how can that parent teach children to show that?
Kenneth Kowald
Sept. 22, 2013, 1:06 pm
Dorothy from Manhattan says:
Many years ago (I won't say how many), I came here from a blue-collar neighborhood of immigrants in Chicago, where I got nurturing from my parents and discipline in school--and became well-educated (I'm a former teacher and currently tutor adults learning English). Many of these complaints about education existed even then. Schoolmates didn't learn English well and often dropped out of school but somehow managed to survive even without incentives or help from their parents. But times are different now: life is more complex--more diversity in the classroom, more distractions from the media, less respect for education, instant gratification vs. long term goals, etc., etc., etc. Yet, in our fast-paced world, education is necessary at every level of employment. In spite of many proposals put forth, there is no one best solution to tackle this huge problem. Educators and politicians will argue endlessly about it. However, if you read the news or watch television (especially PBS), there are organizations and individuals who have taken it upon themselves to come up with innovative programs to help those at most risk of falling through the cracks (too many to list here). And they don't have to deal with the politicization of education. If more of us cared about this situation, we would seek out the opportunities to volunteer to work with others to make a big difference. We all have experience and knowledge to contribute. Just stop chattering and do it!
Sept. 22, 2013, 3:11 pm
Kenneth Kowald from No Holds Barred says:
Dorothy: Many thanks for your comments. Yes, there is hope and we all have to have it. In the meantime, however, far too many of the kids in school are not getting the kind of education you should expect in the richest country in the world.
We all have to keep talking and--more importantly--working at it!
Kenneth Kowald
Sept. 23, 2013, 9:37 am
Judy Close from Woodhaven says:
It's appalling that even educated newspaper reporters get words so very wrong in English (and the papers' editors and/or proofreaders don't catch the errors). Recently, I spotted two newspapers in Queens reports on a woman who turned 100 years old, and the two reporters made the same error -- calling the woman a "centurian" instead of a centenarian. Does anyone use a dictionary anymore, who is under the age of 55?

Everyone must be told from the lower grades of grammar school, and have it repeated throughout school, by parents and faculty, that the purpose of going to school is to learn the skills needed to get a job and earn a living ultimately. It is not to make it more convenient for parents/caregivers to have children out of the home for several hours being supervised by a staff of educated adults.
Oct. 4, 2013, 2:51 pm
Kenneth Kowald from No Holds Barred says:
Even Jove nods. Try going through The Times and seeing how data is used. Sometimes plural--the plural of datum, which no one uses anymore--sometimes singular, even in headlines. Then, there is the whole problem of whoever and whomever. And, how about me and my wife, instead of my wife and I have this arrangement, etc.
As for TV and radio on this matter, forget it.
But, we must continue to fight the good fight, even if it means having our swords broken on the blocks of ignorance!
Kenneth Kowald
Oct. 4, 2013, 4:43 pm

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