Language learning preferably should start in elementary school — or middle school at the latest. It’s possible to learn a foreign language starting in high school, especially if a student continues to study in college and lives for some time in a foreign country, but a functional vocabulary is 5,000 words and true fluency is more like 40,000 words. That requires an enormous commitment.
The effect of our current policy is to make most Americans monolingual. Two years of a foreign language provides the barest ability to manage in that language and after a few years many students will lose even that ability, especially when they have little intrinsic commitment to learning a second language in the first place. Unless a language is used, its vocabulary and grammar fade away, becoming no more than distant memories, a few random words that can’t be fit into any useful reading or conversation.
I know colleges often require those two years of a language. That’s why foreign languages are now a requirement in many schools. But if we are going to require language study, we should do it right. We should start young.
Perhaps colleges should make a change. Why not require 5 years of a foreign language instead? That would push language study into the middle schools. Our graduates might then become authentically bilingual.
Eduhonesty: When a sixteen-year-old, beginning Spanish student says to her teacher, “I’m not going to learn Spanish in two years. Nobody can learn a foreign language in two years,” she is absolutely right. If she were motivated, she might be able to get a great head start, but unless she’s willing to put in many evening hours, we are wasting her time and ours.