College Survival Guide: Don’t be a Gringo

Jason Hersey/Sun Star Columnist
Nov. 12, 2013

Recently, while student teaching in a Spanish high school classroom, the class had some special guests visit and talk about student exchange opportunities for high schoolers. I don’t even remember that being an option when I was in high school, even though the program has been going on for decades. Going off to live with a host family somewhere and learn a language while getting high school credit would have definitely appealed to me, especially since I was shipped off to an expensive boarding school anyway.

Even with $10,000 a year tuition, my high school Spanish teacher was a gringa whose background must have been teaching kindergarten, judging by the way she treated us. But we got through the kid songs and moved on with our lives. I imagine most of my classmates that I have lost contact with fall into the Spanish speaking category of “Yeah I took Spanish for two years in high school and all I can say is ‘¿Dónde está el baño?’ and ‘Más cerveza, por favor.’”

Let’s face it. As much as we as Americans pride ourselves in education, our language skills are muy, muy malo.

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, recognized in a 2010 speech to the Foreign Language Summit that Americans are severely behind our economic competitor countries when speaking a second language. “Just 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English,” while 53 percent of European citizens speak at least two languages, he said.

Maybe it’s the immigrants in this country that give us this 18 percent. If you picked five random folks from a coffee shop or Walmart, I’m not sure you would get the same results. How many of your highly educated friends can speak a second language?

So with such a highly culturally diverse population in this country, why is it that most Americans don’t get past “el baño?” By the time we get to university many haven’t even begun that second language, whereas some of our European counterparts are at language three by then.

Interestingly in the same speech to the Language Summit, Duncan proclaimed that he and the president want everyone to have a world class education—and that education requires students to speak more than one language.

But then, in 2012 the U.S. Budget cut $27 million dollars from the Foreign Language Assistance Program, which according to Jason Koebler of the U.S. News: a World Report takes funding “from a mix of 55 charter schools, school districts, and states” nationwide.

So what do we do at this point? As university students, we have effectively been cheated out of language study from a young age, thanks to our Education Department’s push for math and science. Those that were lucky enough to participate in an exchange program may have been reaping the benefits of higher test scores, especially in English, which has proven to be one of the benefits that learning a foreign language from a young age brings.

But other benefits remain to be taken. Time Magazine reported in June of this year that mastering a second language has long term benefits to the brain such as delaying the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Although I haven’t found any scientific data to prove this, the sexiness level of the college student greatly increases when one can communicate in a foreign language. Just think about the next time you are in the Wood Center and your opening line to that pretty girl is “Ma chérie, vous avez laissé tomber votre crayon.” Just saying.

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