Opinion: The difficulty in persevering through language classes

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Credit: Selena Liu

WSPN’s Selena Liu discusses the difficulty of taking a language class at WHS.

Selena Liu

The rigor of learning a new language at Wayland High School will exhaust any student. Think about it — you’re learning how to speak all over again. Yet, getting graded weekly on tests in the forms of listening, speaking and writing in foreign languages adds a new layer of stress to it all. For many students at Wayland High School, foreign language is their hardest class, as practice doesn’t always lead to direct, visible results. Since beginning Spanish class in seventh grade, the years are taking a toll on me. As each school year progresses, I’ve been fighting the urge to drop my language, as with many of my peers.

WHS offers Spanish, French, Mandarin and Latin classes, requiring that students take a language class for two consecutive years. They aren’t at all strange in this requirement – most colleges also require at least two years of foreign language, with the more prestigious colleges, such as Cornell and Harvard, recommending at least three or four years.

It’s understandable for these institutions to do so, as numerous studies have proven the benefits:“[Students who learn a second language have] greater academic achievement, greater cognitive development and more positive attitudes towards other languages and cultures. Simply put, language learning is necessary for students to effectively function in the modern global marketplace.”

Nevertheless, for many students, including myself, the once giddy feeling I had towards learning a new language has largely been replaced by feelings of frustration as the expectations for proficiency are raised every year.

It’s easy to agree that language classes in middle school are significantly more fun than challenging. Thinking back, all I have are memories of watching fun movies, trying new foods and rarely taking tests. Maybe it’s simply how difficult I find picking up a new language. I was lucky in choosing Spanish, but for others who took languages like Latin, they would have to learn an entirely new alphabet.

When teachers played audio clips during interpersonal listening tests, it sounded like muttering to me. How was I supposed to make out definite words and sentences? I had felt a crushing weight of anxiety because, after all these years, the language I had dedicated so many years of my life trying to master, still felt completely foreign to me in the midst of tests. It could leave me feeling hopeless about making appropriate progress in my proficiency.

For the majority of my language-learning career, I saw “learning” as memorization. I would stare at phrases that I would want to implement and force myself to memorize them. However, it’s crucial to understand that learning and memorization are completely different, in that learning forces you to actually gain a deep understanding of the curriculum. In a way, I guess memorizing worked, as it allowed me to steadily expand my vocabulary. Nevertheless, over the years, I’ve realized that it is so much more than that. Language is a feeling, not a goal you can simply check off your planner. You need to understand the mechanics behind it, the grammar and the conjugations, but you also need to be able to apply it in real life. Speaking a new language becomes much more life-giving after that.

I would watch cartoons or tv shows in Spanish and talk along with them. Finding and exploring connections to the real world allowed me to feel as if I was actually learning, instead of simply memorizing. I found some catchy songs with Spanish lyrics that I’d listen to on runs, or in my free time. Once the feeling of familiarity hit me, my apprehension disappeared too.

Since I am completely fluent in Mandarin, I often question how much easier taking a language in school could’ve been if I had just picked Mandarin. I see fellow classmates that are native speakers quickly jumping to higher levels and oftentimes, AP classes. Those nights before a big Spanish test, I’d find myself wondering how relaxed I could’ve been if I hadn’t chosen to take Spanish. But I don’t think this “easy way out” mindset is necessarily correct.

I admire and applaud my classmates for choosing to sharpen their already extensive knowledge regarding their language, but moping in regret isn’t going to do anything for me. I know that personally, Spanish is most definitely more useful in the careers and professions I’m interested in pursuing. I also know that so many of the countries I want to travel to speak Spanish. I’m also acutely aware that Spanish class has allowed me to not only make new friends, but also strengthen old friendships.

Going into my junior year, I know for a fact that many of my classmates are quitting – we’ve reached the last year of required foreign language and the allure of learning a new language has faltered. After much thought, I’m going to continue. Not for the prestige or because it would be an “easy class.” Not even so I can flaunt the power of being fluent in three languages, but because I know that the benefits of Spanish will stay with me for a lifetime.