Many of us had to take a language in high school in order to graduate, but how many of us actually learned the language we were taking? As a World Language Education major, it's always been clear to me that my passion for foreign language is a little bit stronger than the average student's, but I personally find it appalling that so many of my peers are simply not interested in pursuing fluency in another language. While I'm off buying used French books in coffee shops and making conjugation charts for fun, most of my friends have been done taking language courses for years. That's not to say that my friends don't value having the ability to use another language, but somehow there is no sense of urgency for them the way there is for me. I'm desperate to be able to communicate in another language, this will be my sixth year taking French and I still want to add one or two more languages to my belt. So my question is, why? Why isn't there a more vibrant attitude towards learning another language? Why don't our students continue language studies after they've completed their graduation requirements?
My first thought is obviously Google Translate. Who needs to learn a language when you can copy and paste everything now, am I right? The Google Translate app is a very useful tool sometimes, that is true, but for future and current foreign language teachers it is a nightmare. While Google Translate will give you a translation, these translations are often literal and don't include idiomatic phrasing or the correct tone or nuances for what you're actually trying to say. It's easy to tell who is using a translator app and who isn't when you look at essays done by foreign language students, because the student who uses something like Google Translate will often have very technical sounding writing, that's very simply stated and sometimes even choppy. But for the students who don't have a desire to communicate in another language, there's not really a desire to write in idiomatic language anyway, so we are left with blunt and often incorrect writing that provides no real substance.
However, can't solely blame translator technology. In order for students to care enough about a subject to put real effort and dedication into it, there has to be two things going for that course: school support and future gratification. Students take the classes that are well supported by the school- we all know what these classes look like. They're the classes that get the new laptops, the air conditioned classroom space, the classes that have AP Tests with teachers who are proven to get great scores from their students. As much as I hate to say it, education is a business and students take the courses that are well-funded and will provide them with better opportunities in the future. In today's educational hierarchy of importance, foreign language classes are neither well-funded nor seen as an opportunity for future gratification. I am at what I would consider to be a relatively large public university, with around 20,000 students, and out of those students I need only my own two hands to count off how many people in my graduating class are going to this university to become foreign language teachers. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that lots of schools are downsizing their foreign language departments, in order to provide space for other subjects they deem more important to grow. But it's not time to throw in the towel yet, there are still ways to make foreign language be seen as an important global skill rather than a graduation obligation that you can check off your to-do list after two years.
One way to start making foreign languages a key player in the curriculum is to get the word out. I find that because there are so few of us, and because we often get swept up in a sea of other education majors, I don't even know who most of the other World Language Education majors are at my school. If we could form a group with more solidarity, and make our program more deeply connected it would be easier to attract future students to our major and to get them to think about becoming foreign language teachers. No incoming freshman wants to hear that their chosen major only have 7 other people in it, that's a terrifying concept. More fully developed programs at the college/university level would open more high school students up to the idea of pursuing foreign languages.
Another option is to get involved in the educational policy of your state (I'm looking at you, fellow residents of Ohio). Right now there is an important issue at hand that affects foreign language education: the Seal of Biliteracy. This Seal would be placed on the high school diploma of every Ohio resident that can prove a certain level of proficiency in a second language. Once given, this Seal is formal recognition from the Ohio State government that the student is Biliteral, which is a globally marketable skill, and can often give that student an advantage in college applications and in finding employment. This Seal would provide incentive for students to take foreign languages- thus creating more jobs in the subject area and improving the overall ability of Ohio's students to interact at the global level. This opens up opportunities for travel, for international business, and most importantly for a deeper understanding of another culture in an age where we are quick to become intolerant of those we don't understand.
Languages are important. Whether you are a student of a language or not, that is a statement that cannot be denied. We use language in every part of every aspect of our lives, and to undermine the value of another language simply because it is not the one we were born into is to deny yourself the opportunity to experience humanity from another angle. Learning another language isn't just a skill to add to your resume, it's a form of communication that opens up a whole new part of the world to you. It's a doorway to a vast array of new opportunities, and many of us aren't told that in school. Many of us are told that you have to take two years of Spanish and then you can be done, but we can be better than that. We can change the way that foreign language is considered in our schools and in the shaping of our curriculums. If you're a resident of Ohio, or another state that is considering the Seal of Biliteracy, you can write to your Senator and urge them to approve of this legislation. If you're a high school student, you can continue your language studies with the knowledge that they do matter and will have a serious positive effect on your future. Everyone else, you can find your own way to promote foreign language, whether it be by supporting those in your life who do take another language in their studies, or by picking up one of your own. It's never too late to gain that skill, it's never too late to give yourself the opportunity to communicate. In the coming years I hope to see foreign language as a staple of the curriculum, rather than an addition, but in order to make that happen there will need to be a more conscious effort toward promoting the growth of language education.