Tongue tied by language learning

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Mountains of language books would overwhelm most students.

Kaijona Wade, Sports Editor

For some, learning a foreign language has been a part of their curriculum since middle school. As students have transitioned and continued along their quests to become bilingual in high school, one can’t help but wonder, are students really learning to be proficient multilinguists? Does Bellarmine’s foreign language courses truly prepare students to travel to foreign lands and find their way around? And do students feel prepared enough to take on a conversation with a native speaker without reverting back to English or pulling out their traveler’s dictionaries? To find out the answer, numerous Bellarmine students were surveyed and asked for their opinions on their chosen foreign language class. And the results, were intriguing.

Bellarmine hosts three foreign language courses for students to choose from: Spanish, French and Japanese. Among them, Spanish has the most students enlisted followed by French and then Japanese. This makes sense, seeing as how Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world, and with this in mind, it would seem that students more than ever would be learning the necessary skills to communicate. However, after various interviews, there seemed to be an apparent learning gap.

One senior commented, “language [class] focuses way too much on the reading, writing and especially the grammar, when in reality the priority should be speaking.” This appeared to be a common theme as many students seemed to lack the confidence to speak the language outside of class or talk to a native speaker. “I went to Spain and I couldn’t speak at all to save my life.”
When asked about his thoughts on the effectiveness of his foreign language class, French student and junior Matthew White commented, “I can understand [French] better. We do more writing than speaking together so I feel like I would understand it when people speak it to me but I wouldn’t be able to speak as fluently as they could.” Junior Jasmyne Holmes who is also a French student added, “I feel like it’s good to learn a different language if you’re going to visit [another country] but at the same time they speak [the language] more fluently than us so it’s kind of hard to understand them.”

To get a different perspective, Japanese student and junior Sanaya Nordine responded, “I think in a way [the foreign language classes] are effective but it really depends on how willing you are to participate in class. You have to do well freshman year and, if you don’t, then it kind of goes downhill for the rest of the years.” When asked about any possible changes she would make to her class, Nordine responded, “No people talking [out of turn] in the class and things like that. But, overall, I’ve personally gotten a lot out of it.”

So how can this gap be fixed? One suggestion that came up, was having more foreign exchange students or foreign language speakers visit Bellarmine. In fact, the school is introducing an exchange program with Columbia. [See future March article for more details.]
“Last year, we had one or two visitors come so it was really helpful listening to them talk because we were able to communicate. We were able to teach them English while they were able to teach us French,” said White. Interactions with actual native speakers seemed to be a key component to being able to truly become multilingual. “We should have visitors come so we can ask them questions and they ask us questions,” commented Holmes. Another suggestion for improved language learning was having teachers focus more on students’ comprehension. “Definitely focus on speaking and listening. And make sure students are actually attempting to comprehend what they are saying instead of just having students listen for the fun of it,” added one senior.

So what was the common theme that seemed to define how to become an effective multilinguist? Well, learning a language can’t be just reading, writing and listening, though a majority of school testing focuses on these aspects. In order to truly become multilingual, yes being able to read and write is good, but speaking is the key. How else will students know how to bargain, ask for directions, or have a deep conversation with a new foreign friend? If Bellarmine is able to incorporate speaking, along with connecting with native speakers, going on cultural immersions, and emphasizing interactions, students will then have a better chance of fulfilling that goal of multilingualism.