What Is the Purpose of Foreign-Language Education?

Are we using foreign language as kind of weed-out for college? And what is the ultimate goal?

I am almost two years into my study of French. I write okay. I read pretty poorly. I speak pretty poorly. And my ear is woeful. I'm somewhere in the A2 range, which is probably a good reflection of the actual directed hours I've put in. What I got clear on this week was the sheer amount of hours it takes to feel comfortable in a language. I thought that a kid who took, say, four years of high school French would be conversational in Paris. I'd expect her to be able to write a decent letter, order at a restaurant and generally get around. But now I'm not so sure about the conversational aspect. Many of my co-students were, themselves, high school students who'd taken French for years. They were right in A2 with me. (They were German, not American.)

I'm interested in what the general expectation and reasons we have for putting our kids in foreign language are.

Something else: What if we treated foreign language in America the way we treat sports. It is not unusual to see kids in high school spending two hours after school, every day, in football or basketball practice. In some private schools, sports are required. If I spoke French well and could get that type of time with a group of kids in Baltimore, threw on some competitions for elocution or writing, and topped it off with a trip to France every year, I could make some soldiers.

Maybe this is the zeal of the recent convert and someone's already doing this. At any rate, I would love to hear thoughts from those out in the field. How good do foreign language teachers tend to be in their particular language? Does it matter? Are we using foreign language as kind of weed-out for college? What is the ultimate goal?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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