Language Learning at IHS

Rebecca Caulton, Staff Writer

Getting into your chosen language course at IHS has become more and more unpredictable with class sizes overflowing. The composition of which language choices are popular has changed over the past decade as different languages see greater exposure to Americans. America’s education system for learning foreign languages has lagged behind Europe as less Americans reach fluency. What has caused these discrepancies and what can the education system do to help students perform better?

While colleges tend to have many options for language courses, IHS only offers 4. This is realistic considering IHS’ school size and stricter curricular standards, but many students had specific languages that they wish were represented in the course options. Some of these languages included Arabic, Korean, and German. While some students use Running Start as an opportunity to learn new languages, our school curriculum is heavily influenced by both practical reasons such as the popularity of the language worldwide, and societal reasons. According to The Atlantic, “In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally, 193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French.” This displays the disparity between what languages students see as important or interesting to learn versus the statistical relevance of a language. With that being considered, language learning is about much more than just the ‘usefulness’ of a language. While many parents persuade their children into taking certain language courses because of their relevance to language demographics in America, any language class can be an insightful experience for a student to gain a perspective on different cultures and nationalities of people. Language is a powerful tool to connect people and understand different communities beyond just trivia facts about a nation of people. Junior Kolin Kodama believes that learning about culture alongside is important “because culture influences certain aspects of the language.” Additionally, most language courses at IHS offer a trip to a country where that language is spoken, which may be some students’ only experiences in different countries. Overall, learning a foreign language offers a variety of benefits to students. 

A common talking point between Europeans and Americans is America’s poor language education compared to many European nations. One major reason for this according to Babbel Magazine is that “for [American] high schools, there is no compulsory language requirement in any of the 50 states” whereas in Europe, many universities hold language requirements and from an elementary school age, children are expected to begin learning a second language. This has resulted in a gap between multilingual fluency in Europe versus in the United States. For example, Preply found that around 20% of Americans speak a different language at home, while in the UK “over a third (36%) of UK adults can speak more than one language fluently.” Multilingualism is even more common in the rest of Europe, at around 50%, displaying that the UK is similarly lacking in its language education. Another possible reason for America’s poor language education is its lack of teachers natively speaking languages. Freshman Riya Changole says,  “My teacher is not a native speaker and I like her as a teacher. They can understand what it feels like to learn Spanish from a non-native perspective.” Senior Kengo Shibuya affirmed that “the proficiency of a non-native teacher shows their understanding of how the language works, whether it may be structure, conjugation, etc. but having a native can help.” Studies done on Spanish teachers in the Midwest may point differently. While going from English to said language may have some benefits to teaching, according to a study by Cynthia P. Fraga-Canadas, “most teachers thought that their district and county neglected to provide them with opportunities to improve their Spanish proficiency” and while some teachers may perform adequately, the study found that the vast majority of teachers studied did not practice their conversational skills past their college education. Whether or not the advanced conversational skills of teachers are important for high school students is arguable, but in many parts of the country, this has been proven to hurt the learning of students. 

An issue that has grown since my freshman year is the availability of language classes. Sophomore Omar Abdelrahman cited that within his Spanish 3 Honors class, “ I heard they weren’t getting in because there’s only one period.” Another class that falls victim to this is the Japanese 1 class at the high school, which is notoriously hard to get into. While a new Japanese teacher has been added, it seems to be a universal issue for students to land in the language class they hope for and it is unclear if the school will combat this with expanded language options, hiring more teachers, or continuing to place students in the less picked language options. Regardless, every student at IHS has the opportunity to explore unique cultures through the four language options available and gain a respect for the diversity of the world with our acclaimed teachers.