The first question I constantly got asked when I accepted the opportunity to study abroad to Barcelona, Spain for a semester was, "So, like do you speak Spanish?" I would smirk, shake my head and reply, "No. No not really." They'd stare at me with wide eyes, blow some air out their mouth at an exaggerated rate and sarcastically say, "Oh wow, have fun with that!" This constant reaction started to concern me after a while. But how hard could it be? Pfft, I took high school Spanish, I took a semester of Spanish in college! I was positive that not having the trained tongue or ear to understand daily interactions was going to be a breeze.
The first day of my program begins, and we are introduced to our homestay families that we will be living with for the duration of the semester. My first interaction with Juani (my host mom) looked a little bit like this:
Juani: "Hola, ¿qué tal?" (Hello, how are you/what's up?)
Me: "Oh! Um... Hello... No! I mean... Wait, how do I say 'I mean...?' *ahem*... Hola!"
Great. That was just great, John. Just handover the white tube socks, fanny pack, and slap "American" on my forehead. This was going to be a long semester. How was I going to order a coffee? How was I going to know how much money to give the cashier? God forbid, I might actually have to use the phrase that every high school teacher pounds into our head the first day of Spanish class: "¿De dónde el baño?" (Where is the bathroom?)
I could have never imagined back in high school that I would one day be spending 102 days in the heart of the Spanish-Catalan speaking world. It was a student's responsibility in the State of Michigan to spend one year in a foreign language class. It is now my responsibility to reflect back on my educational experience and pose the question: why is there not a greater focus on secondary language acquisition in the United States?
At this point, some of you might be scratching your head and thinking, "But author, I don't plan of traveling to a country where they don't speak English. My Aunt Barb just got back from Ireland and she had no problem understanding the locals. I'll just vacation there!" Alright, reader. Go ahead. That's okay. But consider this: the need for bilingual employees in the workplace has more than doubled over the past five years and has only kept growing in recent years. The acquisition of another language could be the competitive edge to make the difference between "good" and "hired."
So why is there not a greater push for the persistence of foreign language classes in the U.S.? Why are other places like Norway, Luxembourg, Austria, and France teaching their future leaders from early adolescence one, two, and maybe even three languages? Some states that are highest in teaching their students a second language are New Jersey, District of Columbia, and Wisconsin. While on the other side of the spectrum, some states that average the lowest are Oregon, Montana, and Arkansas.
America, how are we supposed to be able to share ideas, persuade audiences, and understand one another when you really can not understand one another? We are the laughing stock and the "butt end of the joke" when this topic is approached. Other countries recognize that the United States will rather put a greater emphasis on the military allocation than the educational budget of its future leaders and this is unacceptable.
Deciding to spend this semester abroad has been the scariest but exhilarating adventure I have tackled. Yes, I eventually figured out how to order my afternoon coffee, I can mostly understand how much I owe that cashier, and luckily most bathroom locations are clearly labeled. However, I wish I could understand 70% of what my host mom was telling me. I wish I could decipher and respond to what that man asked me in the grocery store line and I wish I would have given more thought to my high school Spanish class.
Buenos días (good morning) to new languages and buenas noches (good night) to old ways.