In Defense of Foreign Language Classes

foreign languageAs a former Foreign Language teacher, I am more than familiar with the concept that Foreign Language education takes a back seat in the American education system.  During professional development days, we were often lumped in with music, art, and theatre—all equally complex and enriching content areas but all very different from teaching a foreign language both in content and in strategies.  The facilitator would usually try apologetically to include examples that we could use in our content area, but usually didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the specifics of the language.  These meetings would typically end in us retreating to our own corners to get work done independently while the other sessions were going full throttle; something we had gotten used to but probably wasn’t the best use of our time.

Additionally, many of my students would be surprised to find that they didn’t automatically get an “A,” just for attending class or that they had to study for a French test as much as they studied for a math test.  I’ve even heard some parents dismiss low grades in foreign language classes, saying that their students had done well in the classes “that count,” and that was what mattered.

A Blasé Attitude toward Foreign Language

Considering the fact that the language of business has been English for a long time and that so many people from other countries want to learn it, I can certainly see where this attitude has come from, even though I am disappointed in it for both personal and professional reasons.  Due to this blasé attitude as well as the fact that the American public school curriculum doesn’t include foreign language until middle school, most Americans never fully learn a second language.  We see it as a sort of impressive hobby more than an essential skill despite rapid globalization through business and media.

What the Research Says about Foreign Language

Despite all of this, there is quite a bit of research that suggests we should be considering foreign language as one of our core subjects.   Everyone can benefit from learning and using a foreign language, and not just because they’ll be able to communicate to others who don’t speak English.  Research shows that language learning has many positive long and short term effects on the brain.

Studying foreign languages provides a platform to study our own language from an outsider’s perspective and strengthens individual reading and writing skills in the first language.  Also, because nuances in language actually influence how you think about the world and the decisions that you make, learning a second language helps people with empathy and patience towards others.

It is obvious to me that we need to be enrolling our children in foreign language classes as early as possible, messaging to our older students that they should be taking the classes seriously, and doing everything we can to promote bilingualism within our own families and communities.  It is time for America to wake up and see the writing on the wall, even if it was written in another language.