You can’t learn to speak a language without actually speaking it

in Opinion by
Freshman Ivan Zhang pays close attention as the class learns vocabulary in Mrs. Judy Ramos’s Spanish III Honors class. (Photo/Paula Mitre)

There is no area of the brain dedicated to biology, calculus, U.S. history or English literature. However, there are spots set aside all throughout the brain for learning languages. The primary location is Wernicke’s area, which is involved in understanding written and spoken language. Despite this natural language learning inclination, countless students have gone through several years of foreign language classes and emerged without the ability to hold a simple conversation in said language.

The main reason for this is because language classes do not teach languages the way they are naturally learned. Take someone’s native language as an example. People listen and speak in their native language for at least three years before learning to read it. Two years later, people start learning the grammar of the language. Then, they read books in said language. Then, people begin comprehensively writing in it. Finally, by high school, people develop complex argumentative skills in written form.

Yet, on the first day of Spanish class, students are already memorizing the alphabet and jumping immediately into grammar. Meanwhile, these students had at least five years of speaking English before anyone asked them what verbs or pronouns were while that is week one material of foreign language classes. Not to mention, these same grammar rules are taught year after year with little variation in what is taught. Although linguists are still divided over the importance of grammar in learning a language, it has become more clear after decades of studies that while grammar rules help people speak more accurately, they do not cause a such drastic difference that would warrant the intense focus on grammar in foreign language classes.

Students at Heritage begin foreign language in elementary school. Each year is filled with simple vocabulary and verb conjugation, which seems intuitive to grasp the basics of a language. However, years of these same things being taught proves ineffective as knowing vocabulary and how to conjugate verbs does not automatically translate in being able to put that knowledge into practice in conversation.

The only way to do that is to actually hold conversations in the foreign language being taught. “Reading, speaking and listening are the most important factors [in learning a language]. Schools should incorporate more speaking into lower levels, not just grammar,” junior Kevin Rui, who is currently taking AP Spanish Language and Chinese III Honors, said. “The Chinese teacher I have now does a really good job at incorporating more speaking into class, which is part of the more important aspects of learning a language.”

At Heritage, students only start being forced to speak Spanish in Spanish III Honors. This change helps students visualize and put into practice the basics they have learned of a language. Without speaking it, learning everything else about a language is futile. Schools should implement a different foreign language structure centered more on speaking, reading and writing to ensure students gain the most from their foreign language classes.

Kristen is a junior at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla. She is Vice President of Student Government, an officer of the Pre-Law Society, News Editor and Assistant Editor-in-Chief of The Patriot Post and co-founder of the non-profit Friends for Fosters. Kristen loves keeping up with politics, watching Netflix, reading and sleeping in. She considers herself a nerd due to her massive video game and comic collection.

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