learning language column graphic

A few weeks ago while finishing one of my last French assignments of the semester, my mom hit me with a question I initially found absolutely ridiculous.

“So would you say you’re fluent in French now?”

I laughed.

“How could I be fluent in French?”

Then she reminded me that I have been taking French classes for six years.

I was suddenly hit with a surge of flashbacks from my four years of French in high school. These classes involved my friends and I playing music from our phones during class, doing homework for other classes during French, having full conversations in English with my French teachers the entire class and skipping class.

Overall, I treated my foreign language classes as a joke and my lowest priority, as I unnecessarily loaded my schedule with AP and honors courses.

When I was in my first college French course the fall of my freshman year, I was taking what I considered to be my first “serious” French class. We were given an assignment where we were paired with a pen pal from France who we would FaceTime three times for an hour each, with half the conversation in French and half in English.

Though my pen pal and I quickly bonded over our shared love of David Bowie and Queen, we did much of this bonding in English, as she was completely fluent while I struggled to complete sentences in extremely broken French.

However, she wasn’t bothered by my poor attempt to speak French. In fact, she essentially said she assumed my French wouldn’t be great, because most American schools do not prioritize language learning.

I barely learned French in four years of high school. It’s not my high school French teachers’ fault — they are amazing people and the women who motivated me to continue learning French in college — and it’s not my classmates’ fault.

The majority of public schools in the United States prioritize and commend learning in STEM fields, and treat foreign languages as nonessential electives.

My pen pal told me she started learning English when she was eight, which is typical for French students. She told me English is the “language of the world,” and this is why it is necessary for kids in France to begin learning the language at such a young age as compared to when foreign language instruction typically begins for children in the United States.

According to The Local France, France’s current level of English proficiency and instruction is considered low compared to other European countries, even though the level of foreign language instruction French students receive is already so much more than American students.

With a low level of emphasis placed on foreign language instruction in the majority of American public schools, many people who were born in the United States do not speak a second language without having family members who are immigrants, extensive travel, or seeking out learning a language by themselves.

I think too many people in the United States have the attitude that learning a second language is unnecessary. Many Americans have a level of patriotism and country supremacy that is not found in other countries. This can lead to the idea that English is the supreme language, and thus the idea that learning another language is a waste of time.

However, I believe English is not the most important language — and that there is not a single language that should be considered the “language of the world” as my French pen pal said. We live in a world filled with rich cultural diversity, and the United States fundamentally was created to welcome diversity from immigrants.

The United States is mostly ignoring the necessity of language-learning to create a more inclusive and educated population. I believe the extreme patriotism many here hold plays a role, and what is basically an essence of English supremacy needs to be removed from our public school system.

If children in public schools are exposed to more serious foreign language classes earlier in their education, we can work to create a population of bilingual, educated individuals with skills that will allow us to create a more vibrant country that welcomes people from other cultures more generously.

Moreover, language learning is much easier at a younger age, and beginning foreign language instruction earlier will prevent the frustration I witnessed many of my peers in high school French face as most of us struggled through topics that increasingly became more difficult in a class that unfortunately was not fully taken seriously by most.

Even though I didn’t start learning French until high school — and did not start taking it seriously until my senior year — I hope to still become fluent in French and other languages eventually. I’m sure my former pen pal would be impressed if I could talk about how much I love David Bowie and Queen in French instead of English.

If you're interested in submitting a Letter to the Editor, click here.