Monday, August 02, 2010

Foreign language education needs revamping

By Sarah Hann - Indiana Daily Student

The full text of this article available online at:

There’s been an increasing emphasis in the past couple of decades on American children learning another language.

My mother had a foreign language requirement in both high school and college, but my father didn’t have one — foreign languages were still considered an elective for him and his classmates.

I’ve had to take one since the first grade. I was never very good at it — actually, I’ve hated every Spanish class I’ve ever taken, all 12 years’ worth. And in that 12 years, I got — well, “nothing” seems too extreme, but I’m far from fluent.

And when I got to college, I continued with Spanish because I’d tested out of part of the requirement.

But I never got an “A” in a language class, finished as quickly as possible and practically threw myself a party when I was finished, so relieved was I that it was over.

Basically, I treated it the same way I treated math classes.

I’m convinced that I’m never going to need high-level math — it’s important to be able to do long division, but I probably won’t ever need to prove the third angle of a triangle.Others might need it, but this journalism and history major will be avoiding math-related jobs.

Foreign languages, however, apply to all majors.

In an age of increasing globalization, the more languages you speak, the better. So foreign language requirements in school, as much as I didn’t like them, can really only help.

In theory.

In practice, 12 years of Spanish means I could help a Spanish-speaking customer pick out and pay for an outfit when I worked in retail, but I’d be lost after about five minutes in Madrid. I just don’t know enough Spanish.

I’ve found that’s the case for a lot of people: They learn enough to survive a class, but that’s it. They can’t apply the material to real life.

So while language requirements are a good thing, there needs to be an increased emphasis on students really learning the language, not just a few vocabulary words and (if they’re lucky) the difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses.

Steps are being taken toward our becoming a more bilingual country.

You can E-mail the article author at:


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Aaron G Myers said...

Hey, not sure about the other two comments, but I for one want to stick to your topic. You are right! Absolutely right. Here is my observation. With the internet and globalization, access to languages is now more accessible than ever before. The opportunities on the net in things like LiveMocha, LingQ and podcasting are amazing resources for language learning - and yet the average classroom still looks the same as it did twenty years ago. Nothing short of a revolution is needed. But it is going to take a lot of thought, big thought and some serious questioning of the status quo. Keep the conversation going! I for one want to be a part of reshaping language learning for the next generation.

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Tefl Jobs London said...

Language teaching does need another approach. Rote learning for tests is not the way to go. Immersing students in the language, and focusing on communicative ability for grades could encourage more effective learning.

Carla said...

Hola desde España! Aquí también tenemos problemas para aprender lenguas extranjeras y hemos tenido que incluir reformas en educación. Yo ya llevo muchos años realizando cursos de formación en Iberestudios, pero no hay forma de aprender. No pierdo la esperanza! Saludos

Carlos said...

Yo tenía muchos problemas para aprender francés, hasta que tuve que aprenderlo obligatoriamente para poder aprobar mi ciclo formativo de grado superior. Todo es empezar con ganas :)

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jahangir said...

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Thanks again dear.

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Mike said...

It's really difficult for kids to rotate from subject to subject for 30, 40 or 60 minutes at a time and retain high volumes of information. We stick them in classes that we feel are important and forget that they are all individuals with different needs and learning styles. Of course there are problems, but new teachers coming through the system with creative ideas are helping to improve the system. In the meantime we have tutors and online language learning.

CharlesKelsey@Learn English said...

Learning a new language is really difficult for me. I am though happy somehow that my daughter is so open into learning new things unlike me when I was young. Sometimes we really have to go out of our comfort zone so we will be able to explore and learn and learn more and more.

JulieM ESL said...

Hi Sarah,
I had the same experience that you did. I floated along in Spanish through high school and tested out of two college semesters so figured I would just keep going. Every time I tried speaking out in the "real world", it was pitiful. Years later, I opened my own remodeling business in Texas and began working consistently with Hispanic workers. Little by little I used what I knew and after a period of time, I can now speak capably if not fluently. Language is power. I lived in China for just over a year, and not knowing how to speak or read a language where you live is miserable. I started learning to speak Mandarin and suddenly felt so much more empowered to be able to tell the taxi driver where I wanted to go, or just knowing I could go to the movie and buy a ticket if I chose. There's only so much that can be accomplished in a class room. That's why serious language students usually make trips to a country of that language to really start integrating it. By the way, Spanish is one of the easiest languages for us English speakers to learn.

Anonymous said...

I've had the same thing happen with Spanish. French as well, but to a lesser extent.
Lots of schools stunt their student's ability to learn by making it into a chore.
Now, if I wanted to learn French, I would know how to choose a proper school. But just thinking about it makes me cringe a little, as I am reminded of the constant pressure I had encountered to memorize without context and teachers' criticisms. And I am one of those high achievers. Luckily, I had some very inspiring teachers in other subjects, which made me want to continue down the academic path.