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Bilinguality: a necessity for America

By KATIE STOCKDALE

Bonjour. Je m’appelle Katie. Tu t’appelles comment ? Ça va ? Ça va bien.  

This string of French, a simple introduction and request for another person’s name, is the first thing I was taught in my first French class seven years ago, when I sat in a small and crowded portable and made friends with a girl two years older than me. These statements are among the few things I remember how to say from all four years of high school French.

I was an A student and continue to be so in the three French classes I’ve taken at university. Despite this, my French is merely passable, much less than fluent. If I were judged on my French the way immigrants to America are judged on their English, I would be met with scorn, maybe fear, and possibly hostility.

Beyond retention, these introductory phrases are possibly the most useful French I learned. The rest was school supplies, weekend plans, and the weather. Not words I used in Paris or Switzerland. Not words I could use to converse with my French flatmates in Oxford.  Certainly not words that were at all useful for the research paper I had to write in French last semester.

One of the most humbling experiences of my life was sitting down at my laptop, with my book on World War One (le premier guerre mondiale) open to one of the sections on France, my notes all around me, and realizing that I had to stop at every other word to look it up.  Hunched over my pocket-sized dictionary, I leafed through the pages wondering if this could really be where seven years of instruction had gotten me.

I can’t blame my teachers, all of them have been open and supporting. But what is it about language, this was we communicate, that creates such a barrier after a certain age?  What is it about my brain, that still enjoys patterns and links, but cannot understand linguistic patterns that four-year-old pick up given enough exposure?

What does it say about Americans, that we demand everyone speak English, their non-native tongue, and yet the overwhelming majority of the country speaks only one language? What does it say about us when we go to a foreign country without learning the language, and speak in English while expecting to be replied to in English? Our arrogance is on display.

There’s only one way to combat this. America needs to become a more cosmopolitan society. Children should be taught a second language from preschool all through their education. Now, my mother, an elementary school teacher of over 20 years, is cringing at me. Where am I supposed to find the time to teach a second language? she asks me. In the test-based, extremely regulated curriculum handed down to her, my mom can barely find the time to teach social studies, and those lessons are thirty minutes, not every day.

It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard to convince people, convince school boards, convince the government that broadening the spoken languages in this country is important. It’s going to be even harder to change the way language has been taught, because it does not work – I am an example. The change will not be immediate. We won’t see it in one class year, or even in one generation. But it needs to be done. The world is bigger than the United States of America, it communicates in more than English, and we need to appreciate that diversity and beauty.

I was terrified walking into my first few French classes at UT. The syllabus was typically tough, and the mandate was that no English was to be spoken in class. I had no idea how I would understand anything. But then, sitting in class listening to a lecture, I realized that I did understand. Not completely, not perfectly, and I did not have the confidence to speak up in class. Still, sounds that had once not even been words to me, but music without notes, began to take shape in my head. The language was still beautiful, more so somehow. It held an experience unique to itself, one I was just beginning to take part in. And that’s what we need more of in America: experiences.

Katie Stockdale can be reached at katie.stockdale@theminaretonline.com

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