Deep thoughts, Kids, School

Foreign language requirements: high school/ college

I only have a couple minutes, but just jotting down a little thought here quickly:

So, Ethan just received all the info yesterday about registering for high school classes next year. (!!!!! EEK.)

We now have a couple weeks to sort out which electives/ optional classes he wants to select to fill in his freshman year schedule (around the required courses). As we were combing through the options, we got talking about foreign language requirements.

It said that they need to take “2 credits” (so 2 years) of a foreign language to graduate, BUT that many colleges want to see 3-4 years of the same language study. We want him to continue studying Spanish anyway, so this is a no-brainer, but it got us talking.

Ivan wondered out loud: Why do many American colleges require 4 years of language study, yet so few Americans seem to actually speak another language??? 😆

I thought it was an excellent question. Because it’s true! Most native English speakers here do NOT fluently speak another language, even after taking these 4 years of language in high school. Sad, but true. I mean, yes, they will know more than before, I suppose, but I just don’t think most high school language programs are rigorous enough to really fully teach that language. Especially when the students may or may not put in that much effort to it. (At that age, I feel like language classes are one that at least in my high school, kids seemed to sort of brush off/ float through. This is one reason I am SO GLAD I actually didn’t take Spanish in high school, but waited to start it in college when I really cared/wanted to learn it.)

I took 3 years of French in high school, and I don’t think I could say a full sentence in French today. Yikes. We had dinner with some friends last week, and the woman was a Spanish minor in college, and still could barely say anything in Spanish! It’s just hard to learn a language, especially if you never really use it.

So it makes me wonder about that requirement. I mean, I’m totally all for people learning languages! I ended up being a Spanish major at UW Madison (+ Nursing), and fortunately, I have had many opportunities to actually use my Spanish- which is why I actually do speak it very well.

But it’s just kind of funny, I guess, that such an emphasis gets placed on it for college admission, yet it also seems kind of pointless in the long run. I suppose one could argue that it just helps to make people more well-rounded, develops their brain differently, creates more exposure to language patterns/ other cultures, etc. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.

Just kind of an interesting point that Ivan made, that’s all. 🙂

Ok, time for swim practice pick up. Gotta run. Hopefully this post makes sense, because I have no time to re-read it!!! hehe.

Did you study language in high school or college? Do you actually speak it now??

Daily Gratitude:

I am grateful for my Adidas slide sandals which I love to slip on with socks on to run to pick up kids from activities. 😁

15 thoughts on “Foreign language requirements: high school/ college”

  1. I’m in the UK so not quite the same but I studied French to A-level (ie it was one of just 3 subjects that I studied exclusively from 16-18) and I can barely string a sentence together 20 years later. My husband was raised in Wales and taught in Welsh and English and he can also barely speak a word of Welsh now. I think unless you use a language regularly and consistently then your brain just can’t justify the storage space! You are lucky to have lots of opportunities to keep your Spanish alive.


  2. Yes, a language was required at my high school so I did Spanish for 3 years, and then it was required to get a BA (not a BS though) at the University of Minnesota, where I did undergrad. You needed to do 4 semesters, or test into a higher level and pass a proficiency test at the end – I do think they are easing up on that the last I heard (I work there now but have nothing to do with graduation requirements). I kept going with Spanish but only the bare minimum that was required. Not shockingly, I cannot speak Spanish at all 🙂 I have never had to use it, and even in Spanish-speaking countries, everyone else’s English was far superior to my broken Spanish so that’s what was easiest to use!

    My husband took French in HS and does not speak it at all. I also think in the US vs other countries, we start teaching languages very late – seems like it would stick more if you started early. I know quite a few kids who do immersion programs for elementary school and they are far, far better speakers than most adults!


    1. Yes, I have often thought that part of the issue of high school/ college language learners not truly “learning” it well enough is that we start so late here! Childhood has long been proven to be the best time to learn languages. But I guess it’s tricky in the U.S., because what would be that “one language” that everyone learns? In many other countries I think the default is English, since it’s kind of the international universal language…. lucky for us…. I’d say teaching everyone here Spanish from childhood on could make sense, given the high Spanish speaking population, but maybe not everyone would agree with that, or would prefer to learn French, or German, etc.


  3. This is really a pedagogical question. The purpose of courses in high school and college is not necessarily about the content (how many of us regularly write five paragraph essays in adult life? integrate to find volume? spend time identifying rocks? – of course, some people DO and those are important tools in their careers, but that is not true for MOST of us), but it’s about learning how to learn and learning how to handle complex ideas and thoughts that are new to you.

    In my grad school, you could sub learning a coding language for learning a foreign language because they use the same underlying skillset. It’s not about learning a foreign language so that you’ll become fluent because, as you point out, most students will not become fluent even with four years of high school language, it’s that those students now know that language is made of component parts, how those parts fit together, and they have to learn a systemic way to learn new vocabulary and conjugation patterns and the like. In addition, they’re most likely learning more about their first/primary language and becoming more fluent in that. I never knew about the subjunctive in English until my foreign language classes, for example.

    I think it’s common for parents and students alike to complain “why do we need to learn algebra? people don’t use it in real life” which is untrue if you’ve ever tried to figure out how many bags of Halloween candy you should buy, BUT it’s also true that even if someone had a life in which they never solved simple equations or created a real-life story problem, taking those classes teaches them about inductive versus deductive reasoning, logic, proofs, and a new written method of communication. All of these tools can be applied in a larger sense to different career or life paths.

    I obviously have a lot of thoughts on pedagogy. I would caution you against talking in an instrumental way about any classes your boys take. There are lessons beyond the name of the course that they are learning and even in a boring, badly taught, or uninteresting class, they can and should learn something. Obviously, we hope that our educators make all the courses useful and fun and fascinating, but it’s important for kids to know that not all aspects of their chosen lives will be useful and fun and fascinating (paying bills! doing laundry! cleaning toilets!), but that they need to learn how to tackle those types of things.


    1. A+ answer!! Yes, I actually do fully agree with you, though I ran out of time to explore the “other” side of all of this in my post, so I’m glad you brought it up.

      I do agree that it is SO IMPORTANT to look at education as a whole, not specifically what you are learning in that one class as the “end point”. I have already had discussions with the boys about this, because they are at the age that they are definitely sometimes questioning why they need to know how to solve these long, complicated algebra problems, for example. ha. I do try to really explain how it’s not about just knowing these things for future use/ a future career, but it’s about building all of the things you mentioned- handling new ideas, learning to learn, thinking differently, broadening their perspective, etc.

      I’ve had this conversation at work in the past, too, because the hospital I work for requires a minimum of bachelor’s degree prepared nurses, versus only associates degree/2 year nurses, even though the actual nursing curriculum part is the same (actual nursing school was only 2 years of my 5 years in college). But what the hospital wants is more broadly prepared and broadly educated nurses, despite the fact that the pure nursing part is likely very similar or almost identical to nursing programs at a tech school. I’ve shared this example with the boys, too.

      I’ve had similar conversations with my husband about sort of related topics- there have been times he has questioned the money we spend on the boys’ extracurricular activities like piano, organized sports, etc., because participation in these things were highly uncommon where he grew up in Mexico. He used to say things along the lines of, Well what’s the point? It’s not likely he is going to be a concert pianist…. And I would always argue, It’s not about that!! You’re right, he probably won’t be. But learning to read music and play music is forming neuron pathways in his brain that will never be undone, and the entire experience of working with a teacher, practicing, understanding music theory and music history and all of it will pay off in other ways that can’t be easily identified, specifically, but it’s there! Same with sports- it’s not about going pro, it’s about learning to be coached, work with others, overcome obstacles, gain discipline, develop lifelong healthy/active habits, etc.

      Anyway, EXCELLENT points you make Engie, and thanks for this thoughtful comment. 🙂


  4. I think this requirement is pretty new in the grand scheme of things. When I went to college in 1999, there was no language requirement. And thank goodness that was the case because they just started offering Spanish when I was a junior or senior and it was through something called ‘ITV’ – our teacher was in one location and taught classes of students in 3 different towns. I went to a tiny school that would not have been able to hire a Spanish teacher (my graduating class was 28 people!!). I wonder what they do now that there is a requirement at 4 year schools. Probably more ITV type of classes?

    NGS’s answer above is so thoughtful! But one thing I thought is that we have such privilege as English speakers. So many other countries teach English and there are many places that I’ve traveled to where it’s fairly easy to find someone who speaks English – like much of Western Europe. So learning another language feels less essential.

    Our boys go to Spanish immersion daycare as you know. They understand everything but Phil would say they aren’t fluent as they don’t speak much. But they have an excellent foundation for becoming fluent. We are not going the Spanish immersion route for school though. We liked that they would have exposure to Spanish but had other reasons for choosing this daycare (cost, my child psychologist friend’s kids go there and they are happy with it which felt like the strongest endorsement!!). But now we need to figure out how to not ‘waste’ that foundation. There is a Spanish after school program so we will enroll Paul in that and then try to figure out how else to keep his comprehension skills. Maybe he will lose them, but hopefully they will come back when he takes Spanish, whenever that starts?

    Lastly I will say that it is sooo hard to remain fluent if you don’t use it. Phil had a minor in Spanish and was fluent. He studied in Seville and took all his classes in Spanish there/lived with a Spanish family (although he said the reason families opted to host a student was so their kids would learn English better – they wanted him to speak to their kids in English a lot!!). But now, 20 years later, he’s not fluent anymore. He understands everything but is very self conscious about speaking and has a harder time ‘finding’ his words. It’s tough when it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation and you don’t have opportunities to use it!!


  5. So my sister loved French and ended up going on to study it in university and lived abroad for several years and has retained language skills all these years later.

    But…I know a lot of people who have done immersion and then lost it almost completely.

    Where we live in Canada it’s required from Grade 4 on through to high school, but functionally very little is learned. That said, it’s like NGS commented: the general skills that are being gathered is important and a few of those students will continue to build on what they’ve learned and it will spark an interest that could last a lifetime (like it did with my sister). Language study is also great for mental acuity.

    I am terrible at languages; I took French for years, but retained almost nothing. I’m in awe of my sister-in-law from Denmark: she speaks like 4-5 languages (Danish, English, German, French – maybe more) FLUENTLY and then can understand a few other languages well enough to get by (Spanish, Italian). But languages are HUGE in Nordic countries and it is a big part of their schooling.


  6. in my case language skills are important for my job and actually required for many posts. I say the same to my girls that they need to keep learning spanish and chinese if they want to work in my institutions. language skill is also quite convenient when traveling or living abroad, the connection you get when you speak the same language is much deeper. I do use all my three languages in a daily basis. I did study French but can’t speak anymore due to lack of practice. So my point is language is useful but needs to be practiced regularly.


  7. Taking French is one of my biggest life regrets (though at the time, I had no idea I would move to FL!). I took French because my best friend + high school crush took French. VERY logical. . . sigh. I do not speak French now; can recognize some short phrases but that’s it. My sister however majored in French, spent time in France, and I believe can still speak decently (or could ramp it up quickly).


    1. Well, if it makes you feel any better, I didn’t want to take Spanish in high school because, and I quote myself from ~1997: “EVERYONE takes Spanish. That’s SO boring.” Little did I know that I would end up double majoring in Spanish in college and married to a Mexican guy!! 😅


  8. In Germany I started learning English in 5th grade and had it a total of 9 years. When moving to the US it was still hard to use it every day but it definitely made it easier. I also took French for 7 years and even though I can’t speak it anymore I still remember enough to follow the meaning of a conversation. In Germany they require 2 foreign languages if you want to go to University there so in some ways US highschoolers get off easy 😉.
    I agree with a lot of things NGS said. Also I hope that experiencing how hard it can be to learn another language would result in a little understanding why a foreigners English is not perfect.


    1. I am constantly amazed at how well foreigners speak English, actually! It blows my mind, because I assume not everyone has opportunities to practice English constantly, yet so many foreigners’ English is so good!! It does make me wonder what the heck is wrong with us- why can’t we learn other languages?! Like someone else said, I feel like language instruction starts way too late in the U.S. The brain is primed to learn language at younger ages- it just gets harder and harder as we get older…. My husband took “English” in Mexico for many years as a kid but barely learned anything. It was very, very hard for him at first in the U.S. He ended up taking a whole semester of intensive English classes at a university here early on. He is now fluent in English, despite really only having that one semester of formal English training (besides the little he learned in Mexico). Obviously he has been immersed in it for years now, but I’m still so impressed with how he was able to basically just pick it up over time.


      1. Yes, it does get harder as we get older. But I would also say there is the presonality perspective. Some people are good at languages, others at math, others in art, etc. My daughter definitely has an easier time picking up language than my son even though I would say they are exposed to German at the same rate. And if you are forced to use a language every day, at some point you will get better. I think anyone who speaks English is at a disadvantage here, since it’s known almost everywhere and sometimes people are happy enough to practice their own language when given the chance 😉


  9. This is indeed a good question. I took English, Latin, French and Spanish in high school, went on to study English (for which I needed the Latin credits, mind you!) and my French and Spanish unfortunately fell by the wayside mostly. I can still read/understand a little bit, but I am not conversational by any means.
    I think languages are a good exposure when it comes to learning grammar patterns, cultures, etc. but yeah, high school classes definitely are just a first exposure, they won’t make you “fluent” in a language.


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