Each semester, hundreds of American-born USF students struggle in foreign language classes. For many, these classes are a graduation requirement. The University’s goal is clearly to foster an understanding of a non-English language and its associated culture.
The University should be applauded for its efforts to promote bilingualism among Americans. However, the University does not go far enough. USF should take the lead and require its incoming students to pass a basic skills test in a non-English language of the student’s choice in addition to requiring foreign language classes.
The American approach to foreign language instruction is ineffective at best, xenophobic at worst. According to anthropologists and linguists, children who are taught two languages simultaneously will learn both with the same ease as those who only learn one. While learning two languages at home is not possible in most American homes, it is possible in kindergarten and elementary school. Given that the two most commonly spoken languages in the United States are English and Spanish, both should be taught at the primary school level.
Some would say Americans shouldn’t be required to learn Spanish or any language other than English. This is an unfortunate, misinformed stance.
First, the United States has no official language, so there is nothing to hold the school system back from teaching American children other languages. Furthermore, much of the western United States used to be part of Mexico. When the territory changed hands, many of the Spanish-speakers stayed.
In some of these areas, they consider English-speakers to be the foreigners. In areas of the country without a Mexican heritage, Spanish speakers are considered foreigners.
No doubt some English-speaking Americans will take the attitude of, “We were here first, why do I have to learn their language?” This is not a reasoned, intelligent argument. The number of people who speak languages other than English is rising, not falling. Taking this attitude is non-productive.
By this argument, people should each be speaking any one of a number of indigenous languages, few of which would likely be English.
In one generation, this could be a truly bilingual nation. A population of people who can speak more than one language can communicate better, promoting unity, not harming it.
Requiring students to have the ability to communicate in a foreign language in order to attend a university will encourage primary schools to teach more than one language. The state’s current approach does not work: It creates people who spend one or two years fumbling through a language with little hope of actually attaining proficiency.
This is not an attack on the quality of language instruction at USF. Here, a dedicated student can attain proficiency, but it is not likely.
I personally know of people who have taken four semesters worth of classes with only minimal success. One says he can barely converse in the language he took. The other says she can carry on simple conversation if the other person is speaking slowly enough.
This is not effective. According to every reputable linguist, simply teaching a child at a younger age is much more effective. With no special effort, children will become fluent.
This is especially true of a language as widely spoken as Spanish. The pupils will not only have the in-class instruction, but likely have opportunities to use it outside the classroom as well.
Josh Corban is a senior majoring in anthropology.