The unexplored effects of learning a foreign language

By Stefan Herlitz

According to the United States Census, just over 12 percent of the U.S. population is fluent in Spanish.

Spanish is the most-studied language in the U.S. secondary education system, through which nearly everyone has passed at some point.

Flickr/ktschram

These statistics would seem to leave the observer to conclude that the United States’ foreign language secondary education system is a complete failure, since clearly the vast majority of Spanish students never end up being fluent in Spanish. This seeming failure also applies to French, German, Italian, Chinese and every other modern language currently offered in schools. If the vast majority of Americans studied a language in high school, then shouldn’t we all be bilingual?

The answer, while seemingly a puzzling one, is that high school students do not study a foreign language in order to learn the language.

Students enter the education system with their own conceptions of the English language that are shaped by their upbringing. Since most parents don’t drill their children on the technical nuances of a language when teaching them to talk, it is up to the education system to teach students these rules.

This is where foreign language comes in. In secondary education, foreign language is unique among the fields of study, as its benefit is not in its perceived goal (i.e. learning another language), but rather in the process by which the student seeks to achieve that goal. The very act of learning an entirely new language from scratch in a non-immersion setting forces the student to confront grammar rules, tenses, parts of speech, and other aspects of language that are passed over when children are first taught to speak.

To illustrate my point, I took Latin in high school. When my teacher first told us about something called a “perfect passive participle,” I was utterly baffled. I had never quite understood the difference between gerunds and participles before high school (in my defense, they do both end in “-ing” quite often). It soon dawned on me, however, that this participle had a completely benign and reasonable use; in fact, I had been unwittingly using it for most of my life. Perfect passive participles convey the idea that something happened to a noun in the past; where Latin would say “musica audita ab populo fuit bona,” English would say “the music heard by the people was good.”

With my personal example comes another interesting part of my observations: that a student can reap the true benefit of studying a foreign language not only by studying modern languages, but also languages that can be reasonably called dead, such as Latin or Ancient Greek.

In fact, it may be advantageous for a student to study a dead language, as these languages are no longer changing. While all modern languages are constantly evolving, dead languages are immobile. As a result, the grammar rules for Latin, Ancient Greek, and other dead languages are well known and concrete. While English is notorious for having fuzzy rules that have exceptions with exceptions, Latin has very explicit rules for prose. This, combined with less time wasted on a speaking component in class (as dead languages aren’t usually spoken), creates the optimal situation by which foreign language students can achieve the true goal of foreign language education: to relearn grammatical structure from scratch.

Now, most arguments against teaching dead languages lean heavily on the fact that no one speaks them or uses them for any meaningful communication anymore. Proponents of Spanish argue that teaching Spanish gives the greatest benefit, as they say it enables students to speak to the growing Hispanic population of America. Proponents of French say the same for Québécois; proponents of German say the same for Germans. Their arguments would all be valid if our educational system were set up to actually produce fluent students; but, as the statistics show us, it clearly is not.

High schools should spend less time fighting a failing effort for fluency in foreign language and spend more time on the structure and grammar rules of the language, where the real benefit lies. One need only look at the increasingly poor grammar of the younger generation to realize that something must be done in this vein.

I studied Latin. While its usefulness may not seem apparent due to its label as a dead language, it certainly bears significance to my understanding of my own language’s structure, and in that regard it is very much alive in both my mind and in the minds of all of its students.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]