It's Time To Make Foreign Language Classes Less Foreign

There is so much promise in foreign language education. Unlike other subjects, these classes can be used directly in our lives, whether it be at a restaurant, apartment, or street vendor. They are especially useful for Americans—frequent travelers and troublemakers of the world. As a global superpower, Americans should have a duty to speak to foreigners with ease, if not in English, then in the foreign language that they learned at school.

It’s a shame that Americans are known instead for their monolingualism. Perhaps it’s because foreign language classes are treated like any other subject. We learn the material, then forget it the next day. Beyond four years, most people can’t recall the specifics of geometric proofs or biological processes, and likewise shouldn’t be expected to remember all conjugations of language tenses. I can’t remember most of my eleven-year Spanish vocabulary. My graduated friends, one an AP spanish veteran, can’t remember words past hola, merci beaucoup, or auf wiedersehen.

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In fact, most Americans can’t remember how to even hold a conversation in the language they spent multiple years swallowing. iQue lastima! There’s an obvious solution to this bilingual failure, apparent in every country but America and Britain. Non-English speakers around the world remember no specifics from their school, just like us, yet they learned to speak varying degrees of quality English. My Indonesian parents, my Dutch cousins, and two Mexican students I recently met could all speak English after (or even during) high school. None of them took foreign language class seriously, as we would with our own, yet they could speak our language better than we would theirs.

The secret? Non-English speakers ingrain English into their lives. Technically, it’s called immersion, as they are “immersing” themselves in English-speaking culture while learning English in school. It’s not forced, not a choice to focus on American or British culture, but an accidental preference. When I asked the two students from Mexico what had bolstered their near-perfect English, they responded that it was American culture —Justin Bieber, Stranger Things, and Donald Trump specifically—that helped them master it. Likewise, other non-English speakers had used this method themselves: my mom and 80s music, my dad and The Twilight Zone, my Dutch cousins and Tarantino.

English-speaking culture happens to be liked all around, and therefore used directly for entertainment but indirectly for language practice. American schools should look here to rid our “monolingualism” label. Like non-English speakers, if foreign language teachers focused their students’ work more on absorbing the culture of the language instead of assigning repetitive, mechanical exercises, students would be prepared to speak it for real. They would familiarize themselves, not just with grammar and vocabulary, but with how the language is used by native speakers. They would inject foreign language into their lives, avoiding the burden of direct practice, diluting the feeling of work, practicing hard without even knowing, trying, caring. We wouldn’t replace grammar and vocabulary work entirely with immersion.

However great English-speaking culture may be, non-English speakers still study the mechanics in school. Teachers need only to introduce practice material in something other than “Workbook, page 25, exercises A-D.” For example, two polyglots named Damon and Jo list Youtube, Audible, magazines, cartoons, news, songs, and even changing a phone system’s language as their foreign language “homework.” They reject the standard of only hitting mechanics and jump right into enjoying the language. Similarly, teachers should encourage students to identify what appeals to them in English?memes, podcasts, cookbooks, dance lessons, workout videos?and spice it up using the target language.

Not only would the assignments appeal to students, but they might actually learn something (other than the foreign language). It’s simple, really. People are interested in what they like. This is the principle of immersion, students absorbed in a language because they enjoy what it entails. My mom danced to singers like Rick Astley and Michael Jackson while my dad watched Cheers and Columbo, caring not about English but, after years of school, able to speak it with style. We have the same education—perhaps even better than theirs—but we never even reach the “conversation” level.

Let’s stop wasting our foreign language classes and instead raise them to the level of our global counterparts. Non-English speakers have learned English through our culture, and it’s time we do the same with theirs.