In defense of learning a second language

Learning new languages is a more realistic goal than people think


Over the summer, I was drinking my morning coffee at a friend’s cottage when their father mentioned the current state of the Ontario Secondary School Core French Curriculum—the French-as-a-second language program designed for native English speakers in secondary schools.

He was critical of the curriculum’s grammar-intensive focus because it’d discouraged his children from taking language classes following their mandatory ninth grade French course. 

His children wanted to learn how to speak French conversationally, but found the majority of their classes were spent memorizing verb tenses and trivial grammatical nuances. Having already taken French throughout elementary school, they were disappointed at limited fluency.

As a result, he firmly believed the curriculum should be rewritten to prioritize simple French-language conversational skills, as opposed to the literacy building blocks of reading and writing. 

I was incredulous. How can someone expect to speak a language without understanding basic conjugations or developing a vocabulary? 

While French was my favourite class in high school, I was familiar with the experience described by his children because it’s one shared by nearly everyone else I know. 

My friends hated French class and dropped it as soon as they could. Readings were difficult, grammar exercises were time consuming, and presentations were embarrassing. To top it all off, most of my friends also weren’t achieving the grades they wanted in the course.

As a French Studies major and Spanish minor, I understand their frustration. I’ve spent afternoons reading twenty pages of pure medieval French poetry and still felt like I wasn’t fully understanding the content. I’ve sat through lectures and understood only every other word the professor said. 

Achieving fluency can feel like an impossible goal.

As most language learners would agree, there’s a stigma surrounding the process of learning a new language that prevents people from getting started. 

The general thought process about learning a language is it must be easy, and you shouldn’t struggle learning or investing copious amounts of time into it. If you struggle, you must be inherently bad at picking up the language. 

Yes, learning a new language is difficult. But it’s supposed to be difficult. It’s the process of teaching your brain how to communicate with an entirely new set of rules. It’s a constant challenge.

Among secondary and post-secondary students, STEM subjects are considered complicated and require time and dedication in order to better understand its material. On the other hand, language classes are widely viewed as bird courses—with university students choosing first year language courses as easy fillers in their schedules, and dropping them after.

I’ve noticed there’s a general desire to study languages, but it comes with mutual, shared belief that it’s not realistic.

This semester alone, I’ve had countless conversations in which friends conclude a passionate story about their time abroad by wistfully saying they wish they could speak a second language.

My response to them is simply that picking up another language is a feasible wish.

Whether you enroll in a beginner level class next semester, download the popular Duolingo app, or catch a flight to a city that scoffs at the sound of English, there’s no wrong way to approach learning a language.

It takes practice to become fluent, but that journey has to start somewhere. I say take a leap of faith, step out of your comfort zone and be proud of each level of your progress.

To me, there’s no greater feeling than walking into a Parisian cafe, ordering a coffee in French, and being understood in a language you couldn’t have spoken a word of just a few years prior.

The path to get to that point is difficult—but it’s worth the struggle.

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