What Should We Be Learning In High School?

For many high school students in the United States (as well as other countries), foreign language education is a topic that has mixed responses when brought up. Many of my classmates from high school reviled it as a waste of their time, saying that “everyone speaks English anyway”. Others enjoyed it, like myself, and valued it highly as an important aspect of my education. In the United States, the prevailing languages taught in high schools are Spanish, French, and more recently, Mandarin Chinese.

The general premise of foreign language education is that it facilitates communication between people who otherwise might not be able to, as well as to improve relations between different countries.  There is a kind of cultural bias in English speaking countries where people from the United States and other English-speaking countries can ask people in other countries whether they speak English before attempting to speak in the native language of that country. It’s a poor habit that many Americans fall into, since our foreign language education is often subpar or non-extensive in its covering of cultural nuances.

At New York University, many of the programs require students to complete a foreign language requirement, which can range from completing only the elementary series to having to complete the entire series from elementary through advanced. Universities often provide a fairly wide variety of languages compared to high schools, but Spanish and French predominate as the biggest programs in many schools. NYU, specifically, offers languages including Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Krèyol, and even Quechua!

Now what I’m going to discuss is what languages we really should be teaching in our high schools, since I believe that our current selection is falling out of practical usage. Spanish is still one of the most useful language since many Hispanic immigrants reside in the United States, and Mandarin Chinese has similar applications in Chinese communities around the country. French is where it gets tricky. Very few people in the United States actually speak French in comparison to Spanish and Chinese, and even if Canada is on the border, the demographics of United States do not make French particularly applicable. Below are the top three languages that I think need to be replace French or otherwise be added to the foreign language curriculum of United States high schools:

Arabic

Arabic, as a lingua franca of the Middle East, is an incredibly useful language due to its applications in refugee and immigrant communities around the world. The Middle Eastern communities will benefit immensely from the acceptance and tolerance for their heritages and beliefs if their language is taught in schools. However, as you may or may not know, Arabic comes in several regional varieties that are not entirely mutually intelligible, including Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Saudi Arabian. There is a standardized variety, known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based off of the Arabic of the Qur’an, known as Classical Arabic. We cannot possibly accommodate the many varieties of Arabic, so it is probably best to teach MSA in high schools, as is done in many universities.

Only at advanced levels can students consider specializing in a particular variety of Arabic, but each has its own merits. Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely understood regional varieties, given much of popular Arabic-language media is in Egyptian Arabic, whereas Levantine Arabic has applications in diplomatic relations and translation/interpretation in the Levant, which includes areas such as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, or Syria (Note: these areas do have their regional variations, but Levantine Arabic does cover all of them to an extent).

Hindi-Urdu

While many South Asians do speak English fairly well (if not fluently), Hindi-Urdu is a valuable language to implement in school systems. South Asian communities have a diverse set of languages spoken among them, and Hindi-Urdu does, to an extent, unite them through a common language. Unlike Hispanic and Chinese communities, South Asian communities are not afforded the privilege of having their language being mainstream, which contributes to dynamics of assimilation. Hindi-Urdu is a culturally rich language with a strong tradition of music, poetry, and literature. Part of the barriers to understanding South Asian communities is due to the alienation of their languages, culture, and traditions.

You may think that this is simply to accommodate the South Asian communities in the United States, but the fact is that South Asian Americans exist. Many of us are divided from our heritages due to the lack of ability to connect to it through our languages, and having the language of Bollywood to connect us is a way of strengthening our ties. Yes, we do have our own languages, but we have our own ways (and sometimes not) to connect with those heritages. Hindi-Urdu is one of the few ways that Pakistani and Indian Americans can find something in common in the way of cultural bonds. Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans have their own languages as well, and it is important to recognize that, and in communities with large populations of Bengalis and Sri Lankans, they do find their own ways to promote their languages (as I’ve personally seen in New York City). For the purpose of practicality, I support Hindi-Urdu as a language to be taught in high schools, due to its extensive cultural potential.

Russian

Russian is a somewhat practical language to learn, though this is more true on the East Coast with large populations of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. Russian, as a diplomatic language, does have some uses as well, considering that it is a lingua franca in many Eastern European countries. Since I’m not as familiar with Russian communities or the scope of the language, I admit there’s not much else I’m able to say.

The over-arching point of this post is to express that certain languages need to be promoted more than others in this changing world. The prestige of French and Spanish is not a valid excuse to neglect the communities of other nations as well as expand diplomatic and cultural relations with them.

 

I Just Graduated from High School… What Do I Do Now?

Since I recently graduated high school, and a friend of mine requested that I write this, I thought I’d write about keeping up your language skills after you leave high school. I’ve heard of a lot of adults who, after high school or college just completely stopped speaking whatever language they took. “It was too hard,” or “I wasn’t that good at it, anyway”. Those are things you hear the most. But that shouldn’t be the end.

If you just look, there are places to practice your language all around you. Talk to people who you know speak Spanish in Spanish. If you can, go on vacation to Quebec to practice your French. Whatever it is, you can find a way. There are sites like italki and WeSpeke, which help people exchange languages with others, to practice or simply as a form of cultural exchange. I used italki to practice my Italian, Catalan, and Portuguese. I didn’t even take classes on these languages in high school, so I had to be vigilant about keeping my skills up.

But since not everybody is as language-inclined (read: obsessed) as I am, there are a couple of ways that I recommend to keep up your language skills:

1. Watch movies or TV shows in a language made for native speakers. Or you can watch videos from the YouTube channels of those who speak the language. Just type in “X language YouTubers”, and there’ll be some article about it. Some YouTubers are more about learning the language, but there are also some that are more about entertainment, or even a little bit of both. Example: (Quite hilarious, I think!)

(YouTube Channel: 데이브: The World of Dave)

2. Read a book in your target language! I realize this can seem kind of daunting, but if you were more grammatically inclined when you studied your target language in high school, reading a book in the language can be really entertaining. You don’t have to read Don Quijote for Spanish (from what I’ve heard it’s rather boring when you’re trying to read the whole thing), but you can read Harry Potter in Spanish, if you liked that series. Note: If you’re doing this to learn more Spanish in general or improve your understanding of the culture, refer to my post on media.

3. Talk to yourself. I’m not joking. You may think it sounds crazy, but forcing yourself to think, talk, and conduct yourself using your target language will make it much harder to forget. After having gone through an entire year of speaking only Spanish in the morning every other day, I can vouch for this. Do whatever it takes: label all the things in your house with the words in the target language. Obviously, this changes if you live with other people. But you should try anyway.

4. As I mentioned before, there are many language exchange websites out there, where you can find people to speak with at leisure, all for free! The one site I recommend is italki, which I’ll link here. The site is incredibly useful, as you can specify different parameters for what kind of people you want to meet, and if you want actual lessons, you can find teachers for relatively cheap, as there are teachers without formal education in teaching who still teach very well, and there are professionals who are dedicated to the craft. Granted, you’ll have to put in a little money, but it’s well worth it if you want to maintain your skills.

I hope this post helps a lot of people, whether they graduated recently or will do so soon. Just because you had a hard time with it in high school doesn’t mean you have to give up. Just put your mind to it, and you can find all kinds of ways to practice speaking a foreign language.

Languages That Should Be Taught in High Schools But Aren’t

So, I’ve recently been thinking about how much people treat foreign language study as a chore. Universities and high schools often require at least two consecutive years of the study of the same language for admission and graduation respectively. I believe that this treatment of such a field can be remedied by freeing up the choices that students have in this respect. This means, you can’t just offer Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and expect them to be happy with it. People like to have a lot of choices and  might want to learn some other language. Most importantly, why are we only teaching three languages? French is not very useful outside of France, Canada, Switzerland, and a few African countries (sorry, French speakers, but it’s true). Spanish is in a similar position, although it has the advantage of being more  intelligible with respect to Portuguese and Italian, and having more applications within the United States, specifically. Mandarin Chinese is indeed useful in China, a major economic and political entity, and its introduction into American education systems is admirable. But this is only the first step.

However, first of all, I want to make something clear: Spanish and French don’t need to be removed from the curriculum. They are still useful, in their own ways, but in the context of the whole world, they lack in usability. People should still learn them, whatever their reasons are. However, we should introduce more useful languages (or at least make these more widely taught), which I’m going to  list and explain. Remember, in the context of the United States as whole, I regard these as true, because the languages below have a greater number of uses overall than Spanish or French. Part of my definition of usefulness includes how much you can use the language in the world.

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

OK, while it certainly doesn’t need to be each of these in the same school, but there’s no denying that these would be extremely useful. Arabic is important, because of negotiations and diplomacy in the Arab League nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Farsi is also important, because with the right tactics, America could actually enter into peaceful relations with Iran. We don’t even have an embassy or formal diplomatic relations with them, for God’s sake! We have an embargo on trade with them, which was set up in 1995. Lastly, Hebrew is useful for similar reasons, as if we could have more diplomats in Israel to help resolve tensions between Israelites and Palestinians and also between Israel and surrounding Muslim countries. The Middle Eastern languages in general, I feel, are powerful diplomatic tools.

2) Japanese and Korean

These two languages are native to two very important nations that directly concern the United States. Not only that, Japan and South Korea are formidable world powers in their own rights. In both nations, there are a number of growing business opportunities. Not only that, they can be easier alternatives to learning Mandarin Chinese, especially Korean.

3) German and Russian

German might come as a surprise, because many people in Germany can probably speak English pretty well. However, it is my firm belief that communication is always done better in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s kind of a matter of politeness. Russian can be useful, because not only are there economic opportunities in Russia, it’s also possible to work with Russian in the diplomatic field, because Slavic languages, particularly the ones of the former Soviet Republics, are mutually intelligible with Russian.

It is certainly important to consider the regional uses of these languages. Korean will be more useful than Russian to a physician on the West Coast, due to a larger Korean population. But that’s for another post. The key idea is that the listed languages are useful, because their global contexts are much greater. In high school, most people have not decided what they want to do, and having a language that is useful in relatively high number of contexts is invaluable.

If you have any thoughts on this yourself, or if you think there are any other languages you think should be included in schools, do say so in the comments!