Opinion: America’s method of teaching foreign languages needs improvement

Sasha Karasik, Reporter

As someone who was taught another language growing up and had to actively study, listen and speak it to become proficient, I can tell you that the way American schools are teaching foreign languages is definitely lacking.

For most students throughout the country, taking a foreign language throughout middle and high school is the norm to be able to get into college. But, if you truly want to be proficient in the language of your choice, you need to make some drastic changes to your studying methods.

If you want to be conversational in your second language, you should begin learning it at a young age. Children can absorb more information and achieve native-like pronunciation. Despite this, American students are almost always given the option to learn foreign languages in high school and oftentimes in middle school. 

The Pew Research Center (PRC) found that only 20% of American K-12 students take language courses, while in Europe, 92% of all students take another language. Not to mention, 20 European countries require an additional, second foreign language to be taken for at least a year.

The Center for Global Education at Asia Society found that the American students who do take languages only take them for a year, making the class worthless as a whole. The study also found that countries around the world begin teaching languages much earlier and are much stricter when it comes to teaching their students. 21 out of the top 25 industrialized countries begin studying foreign languages in the elementary years, and 21 European countries require their students to take a foreign language for at least nine years.

Knowing a second language in Europe is far more essential than in the United States because the countries are closer in proximity and the nationalities and cultures are mixed. The PRC also discovered that only 36% of Americans said that knowing another language was actually an essential trait for workers to become successful in the current economy, but it is incredibly useful to effectively participate in the global economy.  

However, America’s reasoning behind their lack of knowing additional languages does not make up for their sad excuse for language acquisition, as it further isolates Americans from other cultures. To learn a language also means understanding the culture from which that language comes. If someone were to take a language without ever learning about the native people who speak it, they would never be able to grasp the meanings behind the words or actually live in those places. 

The main difference between the way I learned Russian and the way I am currently learning Hebrew is the environment. When I was learning Russian, it was much easier for me to pick up because my household was engulfed in Russian culture. I ate Russian food, watched Russian TV programs and was constantly spoken to in Russian by family members.

I understand that it’s difficult to compare the two environments, as I have been learning Russian my whole life and only started taking several Hebrew lessons a week in sixth grade. Yet, I feel that schools could do a better job at actually integrating a language’s culture and conversational speech in lessons. However, our situation is a bit different, as we go to a Jewish day school, forcing us to be immersed in the Hebrew language through our Jewish curriculum.

Even with this, we are still taught more about technicalities and grammar-related information than actual everyday communication. In reality, it is much more important to be able to hold a conversation than to be able to have perfect grammar while speaking. I mean, how many of us actually speak with perfect grammar, even in English? 

Being bilingual, I have a pretty good understanding of how to learn a language. It takes time, effort and most importantly, consistency. Learning a language without hearing and studying it frequently for a prolonged period of time will not lead to fluency.

Europe’s approach to teaching foreign languages makes the most sense, as the students start young and stay with the course for quite some time. While America’s way of teaching foreign languages is heavily flawed, I think that with some changes, it can really turn around and become beneficial for future generations.