Why in the World Should Students Study Languages?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

I could not agree more with Cassandra Rosado ["Proper Grammar Is Not a Prerequisite for AP English," March 12] about not needing a foreign language class in high school. My son is in Spanish 2 and has never had an aptitude for languages. He spends more time at home doing Spanish homework than he spends on all of his other classes combined. How about offering a conversational language course of one year that would meet the foreign language requirement? Currently they spend a great deal of time writing and reading in Spanish, two things that I certainly do not see him doing in the real world.

Stephen McHale


Your idea has potential, but such a course requires just as much concentration as a reading and writing class, and maybe even more during class time.

Dear Extra Credit:

I'm not sure what the local high school foreign language requirements are, but I'd be willing to bet they're nowhere near stiff enough. We need more foreign language speakers, of more languages, and we need them badly. Being able to chat with an English-speaking European or Japanese on the Internet (because they know English) is not a substitute for being able to conduct business, negotiate deals or treaties, and, yes, sometimes eavesdrop on people who are plotting to harm Americans (or anyone else).

The problem with foreign language instruction in general in the United States is that we wait until high school to start it. Children have a greater facility for language acquisition in the early years; in fact, while they are acquiring their first language. European children learn two or three languages, including English, pretty much simultaneously from the first grade forward, which might be why they can chat on the Internet in English as well as their own languages and sometimes others.

Lynda Meyers

Arlington County

Right. But as we both know, foreign languages can still be acquired in later years without pain, if taught well.

Dear Extra Credit:

I really think that for most students, studying a foreign language in middle school and high school is a waste of time. Being fluent in a foreign language is a very marketable skill, but unless you have the opportunity to be immersed in a language, it is very difficult for most people to become fluent. I suspect my own experience was pretty typical. I took Spanish from the seventh through 11th grades (AP level) and then two obligatory semesters in college. Even though I got good grades, I did not come anywhere near fluency. My skills hit a plateau in 10th grade, largely because I didn't have anywhere meaningful to practice them.

If you don't become fluent, it is still possible that partial skills will be useful, but with so many languages out there, it is like winning a raffle. My decision to take Spanish was pretty arbitrary and, as it turns out, I picked incorrectly. I have not had an opportunity to use my Spanish professionally even once in my career. It would have been nice to know Portuguese or German, but I really could have used French after I started working with a company that has an office in Belgium.

Perhaps it would be better if schools provided an alternative for the majority of people who are unlikely to pick a language that will become useful and become fluent in it. I propose an approach that focuses on exposing students to a wide variety of languages, more of a program in linguistics than a program in a specific language.

Jeff Yutzler


I wonder how readers who have mastered the study of linguistics think of this. My brief brushes will it have convinced me that it is very complex and not something that works well in high school.

Dear Extra Credit:

Cassandra Rosado said, "in this shrinking world, in which new generations increasingly converse in English on the Internet, is it the best use of our students' time to require two or three years of a foreign language for college admissions?" If how the Internet is used has become a reason to drop language requirements, perhaps some data on the Internet would be appropriate.

Although the Internet might have started in the United States and therefore was English-based, it has rapidly moved to other countries and languages. The United States no longer has the largest number of Internet users. China does, with 298 million users to the United States' 220 million. Although many of the Chinese users might also speak English, 90 percent of Chinese Internet users prefer content in their local languages. Internet penetration in China is 22 percent; in the United States, it's 72 percent.

This, and generally lower penetration rates in non-English-speaking countries, might indicate that future long-term growth will come increasingly from non-English speakers. Looking at Internet users as a whole, although English is spoken by most users of the Internet at 452 million worldwide, 71 percent of the world's Internet users are not categorized as English speakers. On Facebook, the sixth most-visited site on the Internet, where many of the new generation are conversing, 40 percent of the users are not using English. Facebook has been able to keep its growth strong (170 million users worldwide) in part by making itself available in 43 languages, and is in the process of being translated into another 60 languages. Wikipedia, the ninth most-visited site on the Internet, has the most articles in English, but that represents only 22 percent of the total articles on the site. A full 78 percent are in languages other than English.

Michaela Barnes


Thanks for all the data.

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