Americans are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, with less than thirty percent of the US population being multilingual. Although two to three years of foreign language are recommended for college eligibility, every student that graduates from Berkeley High School (BHS) is only required to take one year of a foreign language.
Having been placed on the Spanish for Native Speakers track, a series of classes designed by the multilingual program, Berkeley International High School (BIHS) junior Coby Huizenga has a unique perspective on foreign language education at BHS.
Huizenga attended Sylvia Mendez Elementary School through the immersion program and is currently taking Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish Literature, having taken AP Spanish Language the year prior. According to Huizenga, his early start to an education in Spanish at Sylvia Mendez was essential to his success in high school. “The immersion program worked because we were children and picked up everything around us. We were still just kind of learning English — it’s a lot easier for small children to pick up on foreign languages,” he said.
For many students, the foreign language requirement is just another box to check. “It’s weird to have it be a graduation requirement because high school language doesn’t really teach you anything if you don’t want it to — you have to want to learn the language to get anywhere with it,” said Huizenga. He pointed out, “Making it a requirement is just making it harder for the people who do want to learn because they’re not surrounded by classmates who want to work toward language proficiency together.”
Huizenga is skeptical of increasing the language requirement as a way to improve foreign language literacy among Americans. “Learning languages is important, but making a requirement doesn’t help people learn. The number of people who have taken three language classes in high school is almost everybody, but how many people actually know that language?”
Eva Langenthal, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) and a student in Spanish 4, echoed this sentiment. “In my experience in Spanish classes, all the other students speak English and we mostly do worksheets. It’s not very productive, and most of us don’t learn much of the language,” Langenthal said.
While Langenthal believes that foreign language classes could be improved by incorporating more engaging content, she still doesn’t think that they should be a requirement. She said, “Some people are not going to need to utilize a foreign language and they could better spend that time doing something that interests them.” For Langenthal, giving students more autonomy in their education would allow for more art classes and electives.
These frustrations aren’t just limited to BHS. Elizabeth Reidenbaugh, who currently lives in Valencia, Spain, as an English immersion teacher, described her experience learning Spanish in the United States. Growing up in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Spanish taught at her public high school dropped off before AP Spanish. She didn’t have access to more advanced foreign language education, and learned very little during her time in high school past the basics of conversation. “Spanish was basically for people who wanted to have a ‘fiesta’ and not learn the language,” Reidenbaugh said.
Alex Paul, a German teacher in Pennsylvania, also commented on his experience with foreign language. “My teachers were very focused on rote memorization — a lot of repetition and practice,” he said. Paul didn’t enjoy German until he was able to spend a few weeks abroad, an experience that showed him how he could really use the language in the real world.
As a Spanish teacher at BHS, as well as an Ethnic Studies and Social Living teacher for the Multilingual Department, Samantha Borg creates curriculum to avoid the memorization heavy and textbook dependent side of learning a foreign language. Borg makes a conscious effort to incorporate culture in her teaching. “There are many Spanish speaking countries and everybody’s culture is so different. I’m not saying you can’t reference a textbook ever, but that shouldn’t be what the class is,” she said.
Borg and Reidenbaugh shared Huizenga’s perspective on the importance of age in foreign language learning. Reidenbaugh explained, “In Spain, [foreign language classes] start in kindergarten. Depending on the region of Spain, the languages taught can vary, but I’m in Valencia, so the public schools are in Catalan. … You learn English, Spanish, and Catalan when you begin your education.” Reidenbaugh thought that starting these classes in earlier ages can help language retention and commitment.
During Paul’s time studying in Germany and teaching in China, he experienced the same things. “The younger population in China is much more fluent in English because they start at such an early age. Similarly, schools in Germany start foreign language classes in elementary school,” Paul said.
Borg identified American ideology as a factor preventing the US from placing more emphasis on foreign language. “We are fed false pretenses that we are superior to others and that English is superior to everything. I don’t think knowing other languages makes you ‘un-American.’ In my opinion, it makes you more American because we are a country that comes from everywhere,” she said. “Now that we’re experiencing so much vitriol and divisiveness, it’s important that we take the time to understand each other more, culturally; and language is a big part of culture.”
According to Borg, this mentality extends into the value we place on different classes. She noted that world language is constantly pushed off as not as important as the core subjects. “That’s part of our American-centric cultural ideology that we have of self-importance. My hope is that our philosophies will change, but it won’t truly change until people are exposed to foreign languages,” she said.
Reidenbaugh also commented on the role that American mindsets have on the lack of emphasis on foreign language. She said, “In the United States, we don’t have a culture that promotes the necessity to learn a foreign language. We have the mentality that everyone in the world is expected to speak English.” In Spain, on the other hand, being multilingual is seen as an essential pathway to success. “Almost all jobs here require you to have a B2 level of English. … It’s not just for teachers; if you want to work in certain companies, you have to have a B2 certificate,” Reidenbaugh said. The B2 is a certification given to people with enough fluency to maintain a conversation with native speakers.
Both Paul and Reidenbaugh believe foreign language education is imperative. Focusing on the neurological benefits of learning a second language, Paul said, “I think we definitely should require foreign language for graduation. … It improves neuroplasticity and gives students the ability to better communicate and problem solve.” Reidenbaugh saw another benefit: “Learning another language … helps you understand the problems that are occurring in your own country from another perspective.”
On the other hand, Langenthal sees other ways to gain cultural awareness. “You can do it without having to learn a different language. For example, I’m in a Latinx Literature class. We don’t need to speak Spanish — it’s an English class — and we’re still learning about a different culture, and learning more about it than we would in a Spanish class where we’re focused on conjugation and syntax,” she said.
Reidenbaugh sees foreign language retention as the responsibility of the individual. She said, “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. … There are so many Spanish speaking people. … Don’t be afraid to keep the door to the language open.”