Magdalena Mihaylova: Why (good) foreign language education is important

Monday, January 8, 2018 - 6:09pm

Like all true romances, ours was long and slow, but when it came, it was everything. Yes, I didn’t fall in love with Spanish until my senior year of high school, but now, I am planning to major in it and already looking forward to studying abroad in Buenos Aires. But why did it take so long for me to discover this passion, and why do I feel like I am the only one?

In the United States education system, there is no national foreign language requirement. Most kids don’t start learning a foreign language until middle school, when they are forced to pick between limited options, usually opting for either Spanish or French. Their first experience with the language is often through a tired, bored teacher who is usually neither a native speaker nor qualified to teach the language in true depth; the result of this is unmotivated and resentful students. My Spanish education turned me off to (learning Spanish) as learning Spanish began to seem more like work than a useful skill,” Jessica Baker, LSA freshman, said. However, they trudge on through rudimentary vocabulary games, English movies with French subtitles and unhelpful grammar games until they have fulfilled their school’s requirements. For example, Ann Arbor Public Schools only requires two years of a high school foreign language, after which most students pause their learning until college, where they feel lost and unprepared.

The majority of high school and college students finish their language requirement with no desire to actually employ their new skills. This is due to the poor quality and tardiness of their language education. First, starting language education in sixth grade is too late; this is past what psychologists call the critical period, the period after which learning a language natively is thought to be impossible. It is still possible to speak and understand fluently, but with much more difficulty, and never as naturally. Because of this critical period, schools should employ mandatory language education starting in kindergarten. Certain Ann Arbor schools do this, however, it is often optional and not offered at all schools; Spanish is the only language offered at all Ann Arbor elementary schools. If these programs are integrated at the beginning of school, children will be more likely to become proficient, well-spoken and interested in their second language.

I am lucky — I grew up speaking Bulgarian, so it was easier for me to learn Spanish, despite my late start. If all children grow up bilingual, they will gain stronger and more refined cognitive skills. This will have a butterfly effect and impact schools, the workforce and the world positively.

Another issue with secondary language education is the poor quality of teaching. World language teachers are usually not native speakers or qualified to teach, but rather someone who studied the language years ago in school. For example, my middle school had two Spanish teachers; both were Americans. This meant that they had a good comprehension of the language on paper, but not in speech, culture or dialect; these are arguably the most important features to know. In turn, most class activities are on paper.

“I think I learned how to read, write and answer multiple choice tests in Spanish very well, but I thought there was very minimal practice with speaking the language in an unstructured conversation,” LSA freshman Lindsay Hasson said of her Spanish schooling. “We had a few tests in which we recorded our voices, but even with these assessments we had time to write out what we would say. I felt that I lacked the ability to have a casual conversation in Spanish, so if I could change one thing it would be to make time practicing speaking in situations that would occur in real life.”

It is atrocious that students who spend so much time “learning” a language can barely apply it. I also felt this hopelessness after my six years of Spanish education. I wanted to communicate with my aunt, who is Spanish, but the only way I could show my skills was over email, where I could take my time and edit profusely. Even then, the Spanish was forced and formal, not casual and realistic.

The third reason why foreign language education is so inferior in the U.S. is the low standards for proficiency. The Michigan Department of Education has a functions-content-accuracy model for proficiency that is vague and basic. A large majority of students who feel dissatisfied with their fluency report also having passed those classes, and additionally passing the University’s college placement exam. This causes confusion among students.

“I ended up testing out of Spanish at the college level, so what I learned in high school is all I will probably get,” Baker said. “I’m advised not to take a Spanish class as I’m not planning on minoring or majoring in it, so it’s like taking Spanish would be a ‘waste’. I guess I’m surprised that I’m considered to have a sufficient amount of Spanish experience for college.”

It is true that universities often disregard the need for a second language comprehension altogether, as seen in the College of Engineering or the Ross School of Business. Even in LSA, it is easy to test out of a language, despite feeling unprepared to utilize it.

I will always remember how lucky I was to be in a situation where I could fall for Spanish. Senior year of high school I elected to take a University class through a program my school offered. So, every day from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., I headed over to the Modern Languages Building to take Spanish 232. It was here that I finally uncovered the secrets to loving learning a language: quality teaching, curriculum and participation. My professor was passionate (and a native Argentinian), the class was small and involved and our curriculum was stimulating. Taking this class made me realize the importance of good foreign language teachers and interesting coursework. If these standards are implemented from an early age, the benefits will be countless. Quality foreign language education is critical, and it cannot be half-assed. If we take this necessary skill seriously, it will have wonderful effects on students and, eventually, our society.

Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached at mmihaylo@umich.edu.