Students Shouldn’t Be Required to Take A Foreign Language

by nicknoyes

Me enoja la tarea de Espanol. Am I saying that right? No comprendo… o no me importa?

It is a requirement for students in both the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Science to learn a foreign language. It shouldn’t be.

Here I am, in my final semester of my undergraduate degree, taking a full course load of upper division courses. (Not trying to get your sympathy, here. I know I’m not alone in this.) But the point I am trying to convey is this: I’ve got a large list of things I need to do, but what is it I find myself invested in? No, not the work for my degree. I am writing an essay comparing Lake Titicaca to Lake Tahoe in dilapidated Spanish. Nothing personal to mis amigos de Sur Americano, but I honestly could not care any less about your lakes, cultural practices, or your language. The idea that I should be required to study this for 4 semesters is—please allow me some melodrama— academically poisoning.

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I like the idea—the theory—of learning a language, but in practice the learning of a language is such a costly investment and absolute distraction, and not to mention frustration, that whatever romantic idea I had about learning a second language has died and been replaced with a bitter resentment. (It’s a nice thought though, isn’t it? I’ll be in Paris chatting at Le Petit Château d’Eau in no time, right?) In practice, this idea ceases optimistically through goofy and time consuming book-work coupled with ineffective instruction, and I’m not simply being lazy.

There are two things required when it comes to acquiring a second language: genuine interest or motivation, and relatable clarity. These are not pillars in my language learning history.

I look around the classroom. I see twenty students with sleepy eyes and nervous, fidgeting hands and legs. They hope the professor does not call on them and  request both comprehension of whatever paragraph she is going to say to them, which contains maybe five or six recognizable words and is only understood to be a question through the professor’s ¿inflection?, and then they are expected to muster up an adequate response. These people don’t want to be here. These people are not genuinely interested or motivated towards the acquisition of an entire new language, or at least they are not any more following the blunt realization of difficulty in acquisition. This detachment is not only problematic for the students but the professors as well. The professors do not deserve the unfortunate disrespect of uninterested students.

The second language courses generally make no practical sense. Certain aspects of the grammar are never made thoroughly understandable enough, and this is not an attack on any of my professors, who are very nice individuals (who hopefully do not read this). My professors cannot practically relate the concepts of English to Spanish in a way that makes sense to the students, who again are not interested in being in the class and are now especially disinterested as the confusion snowballs with the introduction of yet another tense or mood classification.

In explanation of whatever aspect of the new language, it often seems that the only reason why (for example) this pronoun goes here instead of there or why this mood is used here instead of this mood is simply “that’s just how it is”. This lack of rationale and thorough explanation of how concepts apply is not effective for second language acquisition, and it creates confusion that stunts the learner, making them feel abandoned in frustrated confusion that begets apathy and resentment towards the entire subject.

Overall, the methods used to teach a second language are poor and hinder enthusiasm to learning. I know that some people enjoy learning languages. If you are truly interested in learning languages, and are willing to jump through the counterproductive hoops that are 40 pages of Jeopardy questions about the currency used in Bolivia or Peru, then there should be a particular program available to the student. Foreign languages should be optional.

I do not think, however, that it should be optional the study of language, ie. those things that were supposed to be taught in elementary school.

I have learned a great deal about English by studying Spanish. I did not even know what a direct object pronouns or an indirect object pronouns were until I learned them Spanish, nor did I know what perfect tenses were. So, instead of requiring a person to learn an entire language and hold them to some degree of rudimentary fluency at the expense of all other studies (you know, those things you are actually in college for), the students should have instead a required course that explains the dynamics of language and its grammar, offering a wider picture of the diversity of language, eg. how the grammar of English differs from Spanish or Mandarin, and in the process, this would help to solidify and clarify English to both second language students and native speakers.

The current required English courses are less about grammar and more about expository writing which assumes that the students are already adequately skilled in things such as direct and indirect object pronouns or passive and active voicing, which I certainly was not until I began to see these principles in a second language. Instead of learning a second language the student should first be able to properly understand their native language.

From my 3rd grade classroom I remember Harry Potter and Abe Lincoln. I know there was some stuff in there about grammar and writing, but I certainly don’t remember it. The brief blip of primary school is not adequate enough to lay down the foundations of grammar, and the extent to which this knowledge is vital in higher education cannot be emphasized enough.

Being forced to learn a second language is detrimental to the student, overall, and the benefits able within the notion are gravely overshadowed by the problems created. Being forced to learn a second language as an undergraduate takes time from the “real” studies and distracts the student by (just about) impossibly expecting them to memorize fifty new words a week, attend lecture, and complete the homework, and all of this is while the student is acclimating to a new phonology and grammatical structure. The student likely lacks a proper foundation in his or her native language and this makes the language acquisition process appear even more insurmountable and costly. This requirement is not practical. Students should not be required to learn a second language.

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