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Foreign language education needs revamping


By Sarah Hann





The older niece, who was my age, sometimes turned to her sister in search of a word and commented that her English wasn’t great.

But for a non-native speaker, I thought she spoke wonderfully.

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.

My nephew can count in Spanish almost as well as he can in English thanks to “Dora the Explorer,” and a show called “Ni Hao, Kai Lan” is basically the Chinese language equivalent.

Language-learning tools such as Rosetta Stone are geared toward teaching adults how to speak the language they didn’t really pick up in school  — or any other tongue.

But if students are taught from a young age and in a less stringent way, they might actually learn something in their classes.

For something this important, students should really be taught how to do it, not just how to squeak by.

I won’t be going back for more Spanish classes — I just don’t think they’ll get me very far. But I hope that by the time my kids hit school, they’ll really be taught to speak another language.


E-mail: hanns@indiana.edu

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