About a million years ago, circa 1979, I began my journey through the peculiar American ritual best described as “phony, ineffectual foreign language instruction that will never, ever teach you to speak a foreign language.”
At the beginning of my first year of French, I loved the class. French, so lovely, so glamorous, so sophisticated. I couldn’t wait until I could speak it fluently.
By the middle of the year I hated that class so much that I had become a trouble-maker—a role completely out of character for me. I lobbed small objects at my classmates and smart-mouthed the teacher. But I got perfect scores on every test. That wasn’t hard to do because the class was just. so. easy. The glacial pace of instruction made me want to bang my head on the desk. Instead, I sat with my arms folded and glared.
Four years later I completed my high school French studies. Had I visited Paris at that time (and I should’ve, why didn’t I?) I probably could’ve muddled through, but it would have taken a great deal of patience on the part of the Parisians who had the misfortune to come into contact with my sadly monolingual self. Like the vast majority of native-born Americans, je ne parle pas francais.
Jumping to the present, my daughter Little Bit, now 13 and in 7th grade, has embarked on her phony, ineffectual Spanish studies. Studying a language is important to her. She’s jealous that several of her friends—the children of Asian immigrants—are bilingual. Sadly, she’s been taking Spanish for two months now and has already concluded that she will never, ever learn to speak the language this way. I don’t think she’s resorted to trouble-making, but she comes home and tells me that she got a perfect score on her Spanish test but that it’s no big point of pride because the test was just. so. easy. The pace is glacial. She wants to bang her head on the desk.
Why? Why must it be this way? The citizens of other countries learn to speak other languages—usually English. And English is notoriously difficult for a non-native speaker to learn. They begin in early childhood and prioritize it.
Given the ever-increasing globalization of commerce, should we not place a priority on teaching our students functional skills in key languages? The most obvious candidates: Mandarin (world’s #1 most-spoken language) and Spanish (#2, including over 37 million people in the US).
If you’re going to wait until 7th grade or 9th grade to even begin foreign language instruction, you’re going to have to step it up from the glacial, head-banging pace that torments your most capable students.
At this point I would like to offer my apologies to Madame McKirahan, my junior high school French teacher. My behavior was execrable. But so was your class.