The Benefits of High School Language Curricula

Photo Caption: A poster hanging in a Spanish classroom at Franklin. Language classes allow students to communicate with a greater variety of people. Photos by Sadie Tresnit.

Oftentimes, taking language classes can seem pointless. When I am ever going to visit Spain, you might wonder. Every 90 minute class period might feel like a century, or maybe an eon of worry, hoping the teacher won’t call on you because you have no idea what you’re doing. Maybe you didn’t do the homework, take careful notes, or finish that one really big super duper important half-of-your-grade-end-of-the-semester-project. Conversely, maybe you find everything too simple to ever be used practically. While you’re studying your lists of different job names, or perhaps an obscure verb tense or two, you might feel as though you could think of a million better ways to spend your time. However, as a product of five successful years of language learning, I’m here to tell you that’s definitely not true, and here’s why:

First of all, at the risk of sounding corny, high school is a great place to learn a language. I took three years of Spanish in middle school, and I speak from experience when I say that high school Spanish classes have better prepared me to actually communicate with a native Spanish speaker. In middle school, language classes were mostly focused on building vocabulary, so we studied lists of colors, foods, articles of clothing, and different types of buildings. Of course, having an expansive vocabulary is a good foundation for speaking any language, and it was the kind of education my class needed at that point in our lives. It certainly worked well for me, because I was well accustomed to memorizing words. However, high school Spanish classes forced me to come out of my shell and test the big, scary waters of actually speaking Spanish.

High school gave me the opportunity to move beyond my vocab lists and have real conversations with my classmates, people at the same level as me. We learned how to talk about current issues, like climate change and the immigration crisis. The vocabulary lists didn’t go away, but they weren’t the main focus anymore. While middle school Spanish classes prepared me to talk to my classmates about whatever vocabulary theme we were studying, high school Spanish has prepared me to talk about the world around me with someone who has a different language and perspective. And that is invaluable.

Considering the vastly different viewpoints of members of today’s society, knowing more than one language is arguably more important than ever before. With new, worldwide methods of communication, it’s easier than ever to be instantly connected with people in other countries who have different backgrounds, customs, and viewpoints. As Franklin Spanish and German    teacher Tod Grobey puts it, “your future world is more and more global.” Right this minute, the only thing stopping you from having a conversation with someone in another country is the potential language barrier (and, of course, a well-developed sense of stranger danger). That’s where the importance of high school language classes comes in, because they give you the tools to communicate with a wider variety of people.

“Oh, I’ll never visit another country,” you might say. However, America has been defined as a melting pot for over 200 years. As a nation with a remarkably large immigrant population (44.5 million as of 2017, according to migrationpolicy.org), knowing a foreign language in incredibly important for students and adults alike. Obviously, many immigrants here are fluent in English, but there are enough who are not to justify the importance of becoming fluent, or at least close to fluent in another language. Moreover, being bilingual or close to it gives you a competitive edge in the eyes of future employers. Even if nothing beyond English is necessary in any given situation, it can still benefit you and your brain to practice. For instance, since I started speaking Spanish, I’ve been picking up little crumbs of information about Latin, and that in turn allows me to learn more about how English works. “It helps, even in English, to be able to think about language in new ways,” agrees fifth year Spanish student Lilah Maclowry (11). Learning another language, especially beyond Oregon’s two year requirement, allows for making connections and forming new ideas about the languages you speak.

With these benefits in mind, I encourage you to take action toward your high school language education. Don’t settle for two years; take four. Forecast for the next level of the language you’re speaking, even if you think it’ll be difficult. Challenge your friends or even yourself to a Duolingo streak contest. I did this and everyone in my life can tell you all about how much I bragged about my 200 day streak (not to brag or anything). Make flashcards for yourself, but go beyond that too. Talk to your friends in the language you’re learning at least once a week. Listen to music in another language and sing all the words, or watch a movie without subtitles. Immerse yourself in the language you’re learning, be it Spanish, French, German, Russian, or Chinese, and you’ll soon reap the benefits.

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