I have been enrolled in Spanish classes since 6th grade. Looking back on my foreign language education, I can say confidently that the way many other American children and I were taught Spanish needs a serious overhaul.
Spanish majors at Elon University are required to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country to apply the language in a native setting. My comfort with the language increased dramatically after my experience abroad, but the improvement didn’t come from a classroom. I will not be able to better my abilities much in an Elon class.
The courses I need to complete my major fall into three general categories: grammar, literature and culture. I am not required to take any upper-level conversation classes, and that is the major downfall of trying to learn another language.
Learning to speak a second language is not rooted in grammar and vocabulary, but in immersion. Being thrown into an environment where there is no choice but to speak a foreign language has taught me more than 10 years of language classes has. This type of environment should be emphasized in classrooms from day one of foreign language education.
In middle school, instruction begins with the alphabet and slowly introduces vocabulary and grammar. Children are taught foreign languages the same way they are taught English in grade school, and that’s the problem. When English-speaking children start school, they already speak the language. When they begin taking language classes, they are not fluent.
The most important part of a language — speaking — is put off in so many foreign language classrooms. It is unrealistic to think the teaching techniques applied to English apply to a non-native language.
During Winter Term, I volunteered at Elon Elementary, one of the four schools in Alamance County that offer a Spanish immersion program. In the program, children are either in Spanish-speaking classrooms the full day or part of the day. Although they don’t learn any grammar, most are able to speak Spanish fluently by 5th grade, if not earlier.
The United States as a whole needs to provide better foreign language education programs to prepare students to compete in a global world. Immersion programs are a step in the right direction. They create an environment in which students need to learn the language regardless of grammar rules.
For Elon, it is essential to recognize the value of upper-level conversation classes to both prepare students for their abroad experience and allow them to continue improving their skills when they return.
Learning to speak a foreign language benefits individuals, schools and communities worldwide by allowing them to connect through languages. Without the focus on learning to speak through immersion and conversation, the language is taught backwards.
Educational programs both at Elon and nationwide must continue to expand and emphasize on conversation-focused courses and immersion programs to teach students the skills they will need to feel comfortable and capable speaking a foreign language.