The Highs and Lows of Language Learning in School

Last May, I decided to learn Italian in anticipation of traveling there either for vacation or for a religious pilgrimage. Learning a language as an adult has made me think back to earlier experiences learning languages throughout in school: what worked, what strategies were helpful, and what were the biggest challenges.

Grade School

In grade school, all students took Spanish as a foreign language. Despite being a diligent student (who loved school), I did not emerge from that experience with anything more than basic recognition of the limited vocabulary we learned. I understood the concept of conjugation, but did not have anything that I could really use beyond the most basic interactions; e.g., where is the bathroom, introductions, and the like. The class was not more than 2 or 3 times a week. And as for instruction, I think the teacher found the class as painful as we did. So I had a fairly typical, sad American experience with studying a foreign language in school.

High School

In high school, I had the option of taking Latin, German, French, or Spanish. Just the idea of being able to choose my language made it immediately more attractive to me. I chose French. I'm sad to say that's probably because I was trying to be cool and cultured, and I wanted to be different from my friends who chose Spanish and Latin because they were considered to be more useful. (At the time, I did not know that I would become an Eighteenth-Century English Literature student later on, and obviously, having a strong background in French was extremely helpful with that.)

Despite the dark origins of my choice to study French, I did pretty well at it, and was lucky to have strong teachers throughout my four years of high school. In my fourth year of French, we were reading full works like Le Petit Prince, Le Cid, and L'Étranger and watching movies like Danton. As I write this, I think it's relatively impressive that a regular old French 4 class could get high school students engaging with such material. And, once in a while, I'll stumble upon the essays I wrote in high school and genuinely wonder, "Who in the world wrote this? And why is it in my closet?"

In any case, to top off the great experience I had with French, I got inducted into the French Honors Society. I know that many academic honors are bollocks, but I was pretty proud of that one since I was pretty diligent with my language studies.


Sadly, I let grades get in the way of pursuing a minor in French in college. I took one semester with a professor who was the caricature of a rude French person and who would randomly lose our papers. Sadly, it looked like she was the only professor teaching the next course in my second (and third.... and fourth) semester, and so I said an old-fashioned Midwestern "yeah no" to that, and just did the bare minimum: my one required semester of French.

I had to resurrect my French a little bit later on when I took a few classes on Eighteenth-Century literature and found it useful to reference French novels in the original. But that was pretty much it for French in college for me. (Shortly after graduating, I worked at a magazine that got an exclusive interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy, and I got to use my French to discover that he's as disappointing in his own language as he is in translation.)

In my junior year of college, I started to get interested in opera since we were basically forced to watch Le Nozze di Figaro in an Eighteenth-Century Literature class (we watched it after reading the play Le Mariage de Figaro which was not as enjoyable). I happened to take the summer between junior and senior year off since I had been working or interning every summer of college, and I knew I'd go straight from graduating in January to a full-time job. During that summer off, I perfected my fish-cooking techniques, listened to a lot of opera, and studied some Italian grammar. I would say I still couldn't really use it to do anything substantial, but I could start to understand some parts of arias without surtitles. I had an "easy" time learning some of the grammar because I had a lot of material to use for "input": operas, interviews with opera singers, articles about opera...

Nevertheless, I was still too inexperienced with speaking the language (and also completely star struck) to muster up enough Italian when I met my favorite opera singer, Mirella Freni, in D.C. when she was performing at the Kennedy Center.

Graduate School

I went to graduate school for a Ph.D. in English, we had two ways to fulfill our language requirement: pass translation exams in two languages or pass one literature class in a foreign language. Makes sense, right?

No it doesn't.

But anyways, I decided to take the path of least resistance and took the French exam and the Italian exam based on very loose reasoning (oh yeah, Beaumarchais and Goldoni were very important to my research). Thankfully, the university had an Italian course for reading/translation so that helped a lot in picking up the rest of the grammar I needed to pass the exam. (It also helped my sanity to have a class where there were really easy right and wrong answers.) But since the course was conducted in English to all grad students who were just looking to pass the test, it didn't help me improve my speaking skills.

I passed the French exam by listening to French techno on my commutes for the week before the test. I'm not proud of it.

NB: I should have taken Latin for my course of study since I was doing a lot of work on English satire, but there was basically no way I was going to get up early to take Latin I five times a week with undergrads. I told myself that would happen once I got to my 11th year of dissertating but I peaced out of grad school before that time.

Oh and Then There's Tagalog

I'm a first-generation Filipina-American, and I sure as heck am not fluent in Tagalog. I have enough to get around with Ubers and order food, which honestly, is kind of a lot, but when I chance to meet white people who did missionary work in the Philippines, I just give them a cheery "Oh, haha, konti lang!" when they ask in Tagalog if I speak Tagalog.

Lessons Learned

Looking back, I can see a few patterns and lessons that make me wish I reflected on this earlier. These are the most important things I've realized:

  1. I let weak teachers throw me off course too much. Of course, it wasn't just the teachers, but in college, I basically let that one person put me off going further with French when I could have just revisited it at a later semester. (Or I could have joined the Alliance Française D.C.!)
  2. Many people don't learn to speak a language or "use" it in many American high schools and grade schools. However, the book learning and grammar that we might have learned by drilling (or fear of failing a test) can be useful later on in our language learning efforts. I don't believe even those types of experiences are completely useless if you're resourceful enough to get language instruction appropriate to your goal of speaking your target language.
  3. Having interesting material at hand will fast-track your learning because the best way to learn vocabulary is in context rather than via lists. (I'm pretty sure I probably just ripped that off of Steve Kaufmann and Lindie Botes, so go check out their stuff now.)
  4. On a related note, you certainly can't learn a lanuage in your sleep, but there is a place for more passive activities like listening or watching Netflix shows dubbed into a target language--those activities just need to be balanced with the appropriate amount of conversation practice if that's what your goal is.
  5. It's perfectly fine to learn a language just for reading or academic purposes (e.g., research, reviewing source texts of translations). I felt a kind of shame about my difficulties with speaking the languages I was learning through school, but the fact of the matter is, the type of language education found in most schools is fairly inadequate for teaching students how to more actively use the language via conversation and even writing.