Ever since I moved to Phoenix, there has always been an emphasis on students learning Spanish due to the large Spanish-speaking population and Arizona’s close-proximity to Mexico. Therefore, at the age of 10, I began taking Spanish language courses in school which I continued with until I was a senior in high school.
Though I took nine years of classes, I never felt like I fully mastered the language. The courses emphasized writing, not speaking; while grammar and syntax are important aspects of the language, speaking and listening are much more practical. For example, with my first language, English, I learned to write and spell long after I began the basics of speech. I remember learning words first and then beginning to slowly understand syntax.
When I was a junior in high school, I decided to go on a cultural exchange trip with 14 other students and faculty at my school to Duisburg, Germany. The country was amazing; the sights we saw were breathtaking; and the whole experience and trip was one of the best memories I’ll ever have. However, a big problem with the trip was that none of the American students knew how to speak German; yet all of the German students we met could speak English.
I felt extremely embarrassed going into another country and being the stereotypical American tourist lacking the knowledge of the other country’s language and expecting everyone else to communicate with me in my language. I also felt that not knowing the language really made my fellow American classmates and I completely miss out on a wonderful opportunity: had we known the language, we would have been able to practice with the lovely host families with whom we stayed and also would have appreciated the sights and restaurants more by experiencing a new culture and acting as members of it by speaking the language that holds them together. On top of all of this, in speaking with the German students I realized that English and German were not the only languages they spoke. Most of them were trilingual if not quadrilingual. Granted, Germany is closer to many others countries with different languages, but I still felt ashamed that by my junior year I still couldn’t master Spanish and had only just started my first year of French (taking 2 languages at my school was extremely rare; students were much more likely to take 2 science classes or 2 math classes).
I am a little skeptical about the foreign education policy in America. I feel that it is embarrassing that most people have the attitude that speaking English is good enough. I wish I could speak another language fluently, such as Japanese. As I’ve previously mentioned, my mother is from Japan and it has always bothered me that I cannot speak my mother’s native language. However, none of the schools I’ve attended until college have even offered Japanese classes.
I feel that being Japanese and growing up with different cultural values and traditions has really shaped me into who I am–the fact that I am biracial and half-Japanese truly sets me apart from other people; however, my inability to communicate with many of my family members in Japan also makes me isolated from them. I hate not being able to watch television shows and movies in native Japanese in order to better understand my own culture and heritage. When I’ve traveled to Japan I hate that I feel not only like a foreigner because I did not grow up there, but also that I am judged differently because I cannot speak the language. It is as if I think that English is better than Japanese when both of these languages, in my opinion, should be equally as important to me personally.
The United States’ haphazard system of teaching language neglects speaking and cultural portions of language. In a great number of European countries, many of the classes students take throughout the year are taught in a foreign language; especially at a young age where children are best able to learn foreign languages. This feature of the European system sets them apart from us and results in multi-lingual fluency at young ages. If we implemented a similar system in the United States, it would enhance our language programs immensely. While at the collegiate level, courses in foreign languages are taught only in the foreign language, this is not the case at the high school level and means that the rote memorization of words and grammar is often forgotten within a few years, making people feign away from foreign language and feel the effort is futile.
I will finally be taking a Japanese course next year in college, as I’ve wanted to for years, but I fear that the course will be rushed; I worry that it will be too hard and I will not be able to master it as I would have had I started at a younger age. If the system in the United States were to arranged with more emphasis on learning to speak a language at a younger age, then perhaps I wouldn’t have these qualms about language and would already know Japanese.
Alexis Myers is a Featured Blogger for Mobilize.org’s The Millennial Report. Myers is a rising sophomore at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. and is originally from Phoenix Ariz. She is an advocate against violence towards women and loves to do community service and feels that it should be a part of everyone’s life. Megan Emme is the New Media Coordinator at Mobilize.org and runs their blogging program, The Millennial Report. Megan is a Junior at San Francisco State University and also works as the SF Regional Coordinator for the Revolution Hunger Campaign. She hopes to pursue a career empowering young people to advocate for themselves as well as make a difference in their communities.
Megan Emme is the New Media Coordinator at Mobilize.org and runs their blogging program, The Millennial Report. Megan is a Junior at San Francisco State University and also works as the SF Regional Coordinator for the Revolution Hunger Campaign. She hopes to pursue a career empowering young people to advocate for themselves as well as make a difference in their communities.