Posted in education, Languages, schools

Foreign language instruction in schools (and why it frequently falters)

Once upon a time, students were expected to come to university with at least reading fluency in French, German, Latin, and Ancient Greek. Now graduating seniors in the U.S. can barely be arsed to learn basic Spanish. What in the world happened over the last hundred years?

Since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was published in both French and English instead of French only, English has overtaken French as the world’s lingua franca. Hence, many Anglophones feel there’s no need to learn another language, and foreign language is seen as just another class required for graduation, not a skill anyone will need or care about afterwards.

My parents decided for me that I’d learn Spanish in junior high, and wouldn’t let me take French like I wanted. They insisted French is outdated and irrelevant in the modern era, and that Spanish is more useful. The last laugh was on them, since it turned out French would’ve been much more useful to me on account of all the old books I’ve read with untranslated French and all the Francophone sources I’ve used while researching my historical fiction. I can read a lot of basic French for that very reason. In fact, I’ve used French far more than Spanish!

Over the last few decades, Spanish has completely replaced French in most areas of the U.S. as the de facto language to learn. I would never say I regret spending seven years studying Spanish, nor that I have any dislike towards the language, but I never developed a love for it like I feel for Russian, German, Estonian, or Italian.

No one should learn any language as a thoughtless default. You should have a genuine passion for it. Maybe show students samples of writing in all the languages offered at that school, and play clips of people speaking them. Tell students about some of the awesome novels and films in those languages. That way, they’ll have a concrete feel for what they might like and form a personal connection.

It’s just not realistic to interest someone in a language by talking about how useful it’ll be if their job sends them to a Francophone country in Africa, how French and German are the best languages to learn for grad school research in a field like history or political science, or how many people speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. You can’t predict what’s going to be relevant to their adult lives, and a lot of these selling points are meaningless to the poor and working-class.

I would’ve taken Latin my junior year if my family hadn’t moved back to Pennsylvania, where the small rural school only offered Spanish and French. The Spanish IV class I took was so far below my capabilities. E.g., I learnt preterite tense sophomore year, my fourth year of Spanish (and the second year for kids who only started it in high school), while these SENIORS were only just learning it! Once I even politely asked the teacher if a verb form shouldn’t be xyz because it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse the other students with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

I was able to read parts of Don Quixote my senior year (in a real Spanish class), yet I felt overwhelmed by the material in my seventh year of Spanish at community college. Suddenly I had to read a lot of stories, poems, and novel excerpts, and do a significant amount of writing in Spanish. My previous classes hadn’t prepared me for that level of proficiency and immersion.

The objective of learning a language shouldn’t be reading classics like The Aeneid, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Candide, or Doctor Faustus to pass the AP or regular final year test. It should be reading newspapers, watching films and TV shows, and communicating with native speakers. Endlessly memorizing vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions isn’t a winning strategy for developing full fluency.

Spanish students are also put in a disadvantage if they don’t learn vosotros (informal plural form of you used in Spain), under the presumption they’ll only encounter Latin American Spanish.

Though you can’t entirely escape having to memorize grammar and vocab at some point, language is acquired much easier and more naturally through immersion, particularly when it’s of personal interest. E.g., someone who loves makeup and hair could watch beauty vloggers. A film buff could watch films. Someone who already loves a few writers or poets in that language could read side-by-side editions. An aspiring chef or baker could watch culinary vloggers.

Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina is a groundbreaking classic that should’ve become the norm for all language instruction. The entire book, minus the credits page, is in Latin. From the very first line, you’re reading and understanding the language perfectly based on context, pictures, and definitions, declensions, and conjugations in the margins. It begins very simply and gradually becomes more advanced, constantly building on everything that came before. There are also exercises at the end of each chapter, filling in the blanks and answering questions.

Most U.S. schools also start way too late, in seventh or ninth grade. It’s much easier to achieve native-level fluency before age ten.

Learning a language shouldn’t be about knowing just enough to pass tests, watch films that have subtitles anyway, and muddle through simple conversations.


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

One thought on “Foreign language instruction in schools (and why it frequently falters)

  1. Thank you for the introduction to LINGVA LATINA.

    I also enjoy the MINIMUS books – which are great if you want an early introduction to Latin.

    [I adore that mouse!]

    Ah – yes – the classical languages.

    {I think of Sanskrit and Arabic too}.

    Lots of students in the USA learn Ameslan – ASL.

    [the visuality appeals much as well as exposing majority students to a vibrant cultural and linguistic minority – some of the same principles apply with Auslan and French Sign Language – LSF].

    So true about the books from 1770-1950 using French in conversation and dialogue – especially the more Revolutionary books.

    RELEARN A LANGUAGE by Marissa Blaszek makes the point about real-life materials so well especially through our 21st-century technologies.

    I love the French and Greek newspapers.

    If you have an active ethnic and community press this is so important.

    And when I was young I learnt not to write things that I would not want to see in the Tygodnik Polski [the Polish Weekly].

    Something about languages developing habits of mind.

    Have just reread Naomi Roth White’s SCHOOL MATTERS and will quote some of the words about Languages Other than English at Preshil [the oldest surviving alternative education provider in Melbourne].

    [yes the Sudbury schools post has stayed with me].

    New York language learning really is something else…

    Your community college course in Spanish is something I would love.

    And that final paragraph brings the bacon home.

    I was all: “Isn’t German the best language to learn for science?” [and Russian too…]

    Your love for Italian – amo.

    Good point about the cooks and the bakers…

    I ended up learning languages through sport and recreation – especially the World Game.

    Thank you for vostros – this would have been a good thing during the Barcelona Olympics. I do know Amigos para Siempre and Hola.

    [that presumption of Latin American Spanish has probably killed too many linguistic careers in the cradle – and I am thinking of Hispanic Heritage Month – 2nd half of September – 1st half of October].

    Funny thing about parental attitudes and how they are similar and different.

    Wider family: grandfather learnt German at university. Uncle learnt Italian and had his kids learn it too. Another uncle knows Tetum [Timor-Leste]; Tok Pisin [Papua New Guinea – oh those 800 tongues!]; and has tried to learn Portuguese but it didn’t take.

    Japanese has been learnt by various family members for business and for pleasure. To beginner and intermediate level.

    Bahasa Indonesian was much more mixed [and I am a little sorry that I do not know it – I do know some structure of Malay]. And gado-gado is delicious. I also love nasi goreng and I do know goreng means noodle!

    French has been connected to arts; music; dance. That is mostly the tongue my aunt and one of my cousins were taught. Italian was also an influence in the linguistic pond.

    Young me took interest in pidgins and creoles and cryptography. And puzzles. And conversions at the back of exercise books. [for example Vanuatu’s Bislama which is going through my head after the death of Queen Elizabeth the Second: Missus bilong King].

    Love the idea of Language Open Night or Open House. If creatively and innovatively done…

    I was exposed to Japanese; Italian and German.

    Satellite television was a great way to get into those languages.

    And writing Japanese with a brush for instance and cooking and drinking Japanese tea for the ceremony. Also playing games with coloured stones.

    Italian was full of chalk drawings and bocce. That was introduced because of the sports teacher. Also lots of great Garfield and Odie stories and Mickey Mouse stories and sayings like “Shepherds’ delight and shepherds’ warning” and “Who finds a friend finds a treasure” [that was a few years later when in the Encarta encyclopaedia].

    Wikipedia is my single greatest asset because there are so many languages incubating and emerging – including Australian Indigenous Languages which survive – and you find out whose country and land you are on.

    The radio is another great exposure source [and again, 21st century podcasts].

    [for example a really awesome podcast about popular music in Russia from a newspaper].

    Have just remembered about young Max who is a hyperpolyglot – he learnt at least 32 languages from watching BOB THE BUILDER videos and other explorations and exposures.

    I hope Spanish students would be able to find a happy medium between reading excerpts of Don Quixote and the pace and depth of your community college course.

    There were language competitions as well and Governor’s Honours type of things.

    Always good to read the Reports for Teachers from the year or two before – and the accreditations – so you know what you’re getting into and what the assessors will expect of one.

    As I like to tell people – there is immersion and then there is drowning.

    [that metaphor about bathing in language really does have something in it/to it].

    And there is a Dutchwoman who wrote about Intentional Bilinguals in a family context.

    [from her I remember sequential; simultaneous and at least one other kind of bilingual].

    I have also enjoyed Teatime English – linguistic pedagogy is one of my Big Things.

    Would like to share BookTrust’s piece from Ewa Józefkowicz [I still have to syllabise surnames which are unfamiliar to me from even a first or second look – I learnt so many bad habits from Russification or Germanisation] about the reading of books. #AndICallMyselfaPolonist

    In much of Australia foreign languages are encouraged and desired – not required [for graduation]. The only compulsory subject is English.

    That is in the state secondary certificates. [and academic+vocational are being merged in Victoria by 2025].

    The International Baccalaureate is another thing – you have Language One and Language Two + 4 other subjects + Creativity/Action/Service + Theory of Knowledge + Extended Essay. Can’t break down the requirements any further.

    And French is still relevant for the Olympics… [thanks Pierre de Coubertin!]

    I would argue that mathematics is a language too – or at least formal and logical mathematics.

    [that is another reason for the Learning of Tongues and Hands – logical and lateral thinking! And multiple intelligences – to carry a point or argument through].

    Liked by 1 person

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