Each week, I tutor several students who are taking Spanish classes in grades that range from elementary to high school. I certainly enjoy our tutoring sessions, and yet I find them somewhat frustrating. Each time we meet, I find myself more dismayed with what my students are taught — or better yet, not taught — in school. They learn vocabulary and a few phrases, but for the most part, what is taught bears little resemblance to the communication that takes place between native Spanish speakers.
Their experience is not unusual in schools across America. While we recognize the need to increase our children’s knowledge of foreign languages, and we point to a more diverse nation within a more competitive world, the quality of instruction our students receive is far short of what they deserve. According to The New York Times, a Center for Applied Linguistics survey funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that since 2001, thousands of public elementary and middle schools have dropped foreign language instruction — for several reasons, including a lack of funds.
It is obviously tragic when a school ends all foreign language instruction. But I believe poor instruction is almost as bad. My pet peeve is that students taking foreign language classes rarely get a chance to use full phrases and speak complete sentences in real-life conversations. Because rote learning of individual vocabulary words prevails in most foreign language classes, students don’t get a good understanding of the sentence structure they need to engage in everyday communication.
We should teach foreign languages the way we teach our native languages. We should create a desire to speak it; make it alive, make it interactive. For instance, students can play “I Spy” in a foreign language. “Yo veo algo rojo” (“I see something red”) is as natural and fun for students in Spanish as it is in English.
I recently was exposed to the Centerline school system foreign language department here in metro Detroit, and was very pleased to see they have a more modern and holistic approach to foreign language. In my opinion, they teach foreign languages the right way, and offer a program where children actually learn to love foreign language and excel in it.
Programs like Centerline’s help me to have faith that our children will learn that foreign language is not “foreign.” When taught by those who make learning fun, foreign language classes create more prepared children with more to offer in this global world of ours. Foreign languages are essential; we just need to find more ways to make learning them as natural as the way we first learned English.