In most high schools across America, language class looks a little like this: a group of soporific students sitting in rows, filling out verb conjugation charts, and sometimes giving heavily-accented presentations about the local cuisine of Córdoba. There are forced dialogues inspired by generalized “life” situations, and then the whole week devoted to watching Cinema Paradiso with English subtitles. Many students will not go beyond their high school's language requirement, and will forget all vocabulary, verbs, and culture almost immediately after their last course ends.
The United States is falling behind in secondary language acquisition, according to The Atlantic’s Amelia Friedman, founder of the Student Language Exchange. At last year’s Language Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, educators from across the U.S. lobbied for more federal funding for world languages. But budget cuts and low enrollment make fighting for foreign language a constant uphill battle. Only 7% of college students are taking language courses in America, and of those who study foreign language in high school, less than 1% can speak that language now.
Education budgets have always faced debate based on prioritization. “Specials” such as physical education, the arts, and language have borne the brunt of the deal, being seen by some as “financial quicksand.” Though the utility of language-learning is controversial, Friedman lauds its academic and cognitive advantages, as well as its relevance to today’s job market.
This article, and many others, have made me think about the importance of language in my own life. I started studying French in middle school, after becoming enraptured by Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. Though the film was in English, I was fixated by the opulence of the opera house, the chandelier, and the macabre elements of the French underworld. I immediately took to the language, finding myself studying outside of school by reading French books and seeing French films. Though, each year, my class sizes became smaller and smaller.
When I graduated high school, I didn’t stop studying French. I read French to myself in my dorm room at college, I wrote daily journal entries in French. It was my way to get away from the world. I found comfort in conjugations, reprieve in recitations. Language was my fortress, my little taste of a dream. I got the chance to study in Paris, where I met French friends and was able to put my study into practice. It was essential to my feeling of completeness.
When I think about the future, and my children going to school, I can’t imagine that they won’t take language classes. Part of what I appreciate about being an American is the ability to access such a wide range of cultures. In my native city of New York, I can travel the world in just a few subway stops. One moment, I’m in Italy, the next, I’m in China. Poland, India, France. Language-learning should not be just a requirement. It is a small window into another world that can grow into a portal. It stretches the brain, it tests memory, and it helps us make connections. Language teaches me more than just words; it teaches me how to have conversations, make memories, and be a citizen of the world.