Our Opinion: Foreign Language Requirements

Alannah Post, Editor-in-Chief

Throughout the United States, it is common to see required foreign language classes like French or Spanish in high school course catalogs. Sometimes they will include Latin, American Sign Language (ASL), or German.

Depending on the school district, these foreign language classes may start in elementary school – generally kindergarten. This aligns with language classes outside of the US – particularly in Europe, where many students start learning another language (like English) at a very young age along with their native tongue.

The question is, how much does high school foreign language promote fluency? In most places, the average class time is 40 minutes, which decidedly does not, even over the course of four years, help a student become fluent. Most students do not stay in the curriculum that long anyway.

At BDHS, average class times are around 90 minutes – better than barely half an hour, but still somewhat lacking as students only have that class every other day. If they have it for a first block, there is the advantage of exposure to the language each day, but the length of time is still under an hour.

Many colleges also require a language credit – the added plus is that most schools have an expansive list for students to choose from. If it is available, the most effective way for someone to learn a language is immersion, ranked after being raised with a second language. Immersion is spending time in a country or area where the target language is widely spoken, learning primarily through exposure and conversations with people who speak the language.

The way that people learn languages is not the same as the way they learn math or history – the language a person speaks has an intrinsic emotional connection, something that is developed when young children are figuring out how to express themselves through speaking. Language processing is not centered in a single part of the brain – it is spread across different areas, including the Broca’s area, the frontal and parietal lobes, and the insular cortex. Many high schools teach languages without trying to develop this connection, instead choosing a translation-based method (i.e, this-means-this, having the expectation that the feeling of expression in their native language is achieved just by saying the word or phrase in the target).

This is not to say that high schools should not teach students how to translate, that would be ridiculous – there does have to be that “in my native tongue, this is what that means” component, otherwise the lessons go nowhere. But by the time students get to these classes, their brains have already developed that emotional connection to their native language, especially if they only speak one to start with (as research shows, students who grow up multilingual tend to have an easier time learning other languages), it is incredibly difficult to “switch the brain” to learn a different set of vocabulary, grammar, and even a new alphabet.