Where foreign language requirements are concerned, students often ask how many years they need to take for college admissions. There isn’t really a clear-cut answer or an overall minimum cut off. In short, it varies from college to college, with some requiring two years and others recommending four. But the truth is, regardless of what those requirements look like, foreign language classes are not living up to their promises.
The percentage of high schools offering foreign languages in 2012 stood at a steady 91%. And yet, in 2015, less than 1 percent of American adults were proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom.
Before we dig into this discrepancy, let’s look into why colleges care about foreign languages in the first place. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) identified three core benefits:
- Academic: Second language learning has been correlated to higher academic achievement and self-efficacy.
- Cognitive: Bilingualism has been proven to build multitasking skills, improve memory, and boost problem solving abilities.
- Culture: Picking up a second language has been said to affect attitudes and beliefs about other cultures. In other words, it increases global awareness, cultural respect and awakens curiosity that leads to reform and concern for other areas of the world. This matters as colleges ultimately strive to create the world leaders of tomorrow.
- Perseverance: Another to add to the list here is that colleges value students who successfully learn a foreign language because it demonstrates that they have the ability to persevere through a difficult process.
To revisit the percentage discrepancy between foreign languages offerings in high schools and students who are actually foreign language proficient, the heart of this issue lies in the misalignment of purpose and execution.
Most foreign language classes are comprised of exams and classroom curriculum which focus on vocabulary, conjugation, and syntax as opposed to true mastery of a language. This current foreign language requirement landscape has it backward. It operates under a false pretense that exposure of a few semesters leads to cultural and linguistic sensitivity and critical thinking skills. It is clear this is a landscape that needs reform. However, instead of waiting around for change, students should take their learning into their own hands. Here’s how:
Start small, even if you don’t want to:
It’s normal to feel impatient and want to learn a new language as fast as possible. But by doing this, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’ll very likely feel overwhelmed and give up early on. Set realistically attainable goals, German translator Judith Matz suggests: “Pick up 50 words of a language and start using them on people — and then slowly start picking up grammar.”
Find a community:
It could be a group of friends trying to learn the same language or maybe a foreign exchange student group who speaks the language you’re learning. The point here is to create opportunities for yourself to actually converse in the new language on a daily basis. You will pick up a new language so much faster by actually speaking it and hearing it being spoken than by sitting in a classroom learning syntax. Plus, new friends.
Invite it into your daily life:
In addition to conversing in the foreign language, find other ways to integrate it into every aspect of your life. Maybe start labeling personal objects in a foreign language, watch subtitled movies and listen to music in whatever your language of choice is.
Get out there:
Look out for study abroad opportunities, and shy away from the large-scale urbanized areas where you can easily get by speaking English every day. Instead, seek out opportunities to be in the more rural parts of town where you’ll be forced to converse in their native language. There’s really no faster way to learn, plus you get a life adventure for the books.
Get off social media, get on language apps:
Even if study abroad is not feasible, mastering a new language is still highly doable. Instead of poking around on Instagram, dedicate 30 minutes every day to getting on a language app. Duolingo is a free platform with interactive bite-sized lessons with a great track record. All you need is a little dedication.
Make loud mistakes:
Last but not least, it can be daunting to learn an entirely new language. Self-consciousness will kick in and you’ll feel nervous about holding a conversation with peers. More often than not, people will appreciate and respect your efforts, and even try to help you along the way. Use these moments as an opportunity to test out those fresh new skills. And hey, even if you’re in a less than ideal environment or community, don’t let that deter you. The louder the mistake, the stronger the lesson. The more you speak, the closer you’ll get to true language proficiency.
The key takeaway here is that the mindset needs to shift. Learning a language has little to do with passing tests and much more to do with being able to hold conversations and form thoughts in the new language. Only then will you truly reap the benefits of being bilingual. Demonstrate to colleges that you take your learning seriously and that you’re not just in it to meet requirements or for the grades. Move away from mere classroom language learning and strive instead for native fluency.