Foreign language emphasis is often just talk

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, April 22, 2010

My online discussion group, Admissions 101, recently exchanged verbal blows over foreign language courses in high school. Most of us defended the conventional wisdom. Learning another language improves cognitive development, we said. It enhances academic skills, encourages a sense of the wider world and looks good to colleges.

But the dissenters scored some points. "It is a waste of time and money in our schools," said a parent who remembered seeing empty language lab stalls. A high school teacher said that "language study is complete nonsense for most people. I'd wager close to 80 percent of kids taking foreign languages in high school do so because they have to."

There is something to that. Most high schools, including those in the Washington area, do not require foreign language study for graduation. Virginia students need it only if they want to earn an advanced diploma. Maryland requires language classes, but students can substitute technology courses. The reason a majority of Washington area high school students take foreign languages -- Spanish is the most popular choice -- is that selective colleges require them to do so.

How much do they learn? There is little evidence that many students achieve much fluency in high school. Two of my children were serious Spanish students, joined programs that had them live with families in Latin America and today, as adults, use the language in their work. But their parents were the more typical opportunists. We did what we had to do to get a good grade but developed few conversational skills. My wife avoided the problem of speaking fluency altogether by taking Latin. That helps explain her great skill as a writer and editor of English, but she is happy her high school language is dead.

I also took Latin the first two years of high school, because that was what the most nerdy kids in the school were doing, and they were my peer group. Exhibit A is John Holdren, who grew up to be a Harvard professor of environmental policy and is President Obama's science czar. When I was a ninth-grader, upperclassman Holdren bought me as his slave for the annual Latin Banquet. But my close observation of his behavior at that event led me to conclude he was more interested in talking to girls than in developing linguistic skills to discuss Pliny the Elder.

I switched to German for 11th and 12th grades. I also learned little and got A's. It wasn't until I decided I wanted to be a reporter in China that I got serious about grammar, vocabulary and accent. It was very difficult, another reason high school language students don't get very far.

How the students still look good on their report cards is easy to explain. Because much of the world is striving to learn English, Americans wonder why they should bother to learn other languages. We talk about the importance of foreign language learning to our national security, but if we need speakers of exotic tongues, we import them.

We tell our children that their Spanish or Russian or Arabic or Japanese studies are important. But we give them high grades for little progress. Most colleges don't require that applicants have more than two years. And from what I can see, based on what actually happens in high schools, learning a foreign language often is a waste of time.

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