Shoving Words Down Reluctant Throats

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(My apologies to readers for the fact I have fallen off the map lately. I am working on my book.)

From one of the two years when I taught Spanish:

The Spanish classes I taught in high school were often taking the place of another elective students might have chosen instead, had they been given a choice. Spanish bumped a real elective – or choice — for many students.  I asked one Spanish 2 class how many were taking Spanish because they wanted to learn Spanish and how many were taking Spanish to fulfill the two-year expectation for college applications. The class contained three students who wanted to learn Spanish, twenty-five who wanted to get the college requirement out of the way and one who was not sure.

I would like readers to at least consider the idea that obligatory language studies may make the very idea of language study less appealing. If a student “has” to take Spanish, that student may be must less enthusiastic than if he or she could choose Spanish out of a list of alternatives. In an area as demanding as language learning, enthusiasm matters. The prevailing wisdom says a person should master around 10,000 words to reach fluency in a language.

We ought to be starting foreign languages in elementary school or middle school at the absolute latest. I believe some students’ negativity originated in their late start. As one sixteen-year-old student said to me:

“Ms. Turner, I am not gonna learn Spanish. Nobody can learn a language in two years. And I don’t even wanna do it.”

She was right. With a fiercely dedicated effort and a good ear, I know a student can become functional in Spanish in two years. If we had set that attractive, petite cheerleader down in an immersion program in Madrid for two years, she might have emerged knowing two languages. But that “I don’t even wanna do it” was the final nail in that girl’s language-learning coffin.

Would my student have wanted to study Spanish if she had begun earlier? We can’t know the answer to that question. But a student who starts a language at six, ten or thirteen has a far better chance of becoming bilingual than those poor high school juniors and seniors who suddenly found themselves in language classes. Being able to conduct conversations when starting high school, even halting conversations, offers a hope of success that pessimistic students may lack when their desired studio art class becomes Spanish I instead.

Eduhonesty: Today’s post will be short. A language takes time to learn. Vocabulary, accents and colloquialisms are most easily learned in elementary school. By middle school at the latest, we should be providing language instruction. Students should have a selection, too — not merely Spanish, Spanish or Spanish. By high school, students should be well-launched on their foreign language adventures, ready to take that trip to Madrid or Berlin to fill their suitcases with foreign-language versions of their favorite books.

If districts must start language students in high school, I believe parents and teachers should demand that those students start at the beginning of their freshman year. In four years, a student can get a strong start on another language. Later than freshman year is simply too late.