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Bilingual High School Students Should Be Trilingual

If you are having trouble deciding on what language to take in high school, I’d recommend reading it. Otherwise it’s mostly a rant.

I’m proud to say I’ve always spoken two languages: English and Chinese. I rarely have a conversation purely in one language in my house. It’s partly due to all the Sunday Chinese lessons I attended and also because some idioms in Chinese capture moments in my household that English simply cannot. 

Our middle school and high school had a language requirement, and I soon had to decide what language to take. After discussing with my parents, I opted to take Spanish to become (somewhat) trilingual. I was one of a few Asian Americans who decided this instead of Latin or Chinese. At first, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just take Chinese or Latin with all my other friends (Latin had the most generous grading curve). But now I realize the benefits of learning Spanish is. I’ll split this into two parts: why you shouldn’t learn your second language and why you shouldn’t take Latin.

Become trilingual

If bilingual, students should learn an actual third language in school instead of taking their second language.

There are usually three reasons why I see high school students choose to take their second language to fulfill their school’s language requirement.

Students will get an easy class

A common assumption is: “well, if I know the language, then the class will be an easy A, and I won’t have to try too hard.” There will always be classes that are easier than others. However, does it ever bother students how repetitively relearning basic language stuff is? Schools are notorious for assigning busywork, which can be tedious no matter the student’s proficiency. I can guarantee that there are classes that are super easy and students can learn something new. Students can even take an off period instead if they want to have more time to focus on another class.

Furthermore, it can also be frustrating for non-native speakers in those classes to learn the language. The native speakers in my AP Spanish class did their presentations completely impromptu while the rest of the class worked all night to proofread all their grammar and practice the delivery. I felt terrible for the teacher who had to alternate between these types of presentations and accommodate both types of students. It made it hard to create assignments and also create a curriculum.

Students will actually become Bilingual

Not every child goes to Sunday Chinese school for ten years, nor do they have the opportunity to go to China or have enthusiastic grandparents that help them practice their language. As a parent, I’d want my kids to learn the language of my ancestors. But high school classes do a poor job of teaching the language.

We spend so much time working on grammar and writing that we completely forget about the most crucial part of learning a language: speaking. For the first four years of Spanish instruction, I never worked on my conversation skills. I got A+s by simply memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary even though I’d have to pause every few words because I couldn’t conjugate verbs quickly in my head. All examinations were written and highly formulaic. Only when I took Spanish AP did I start practicing my speaking skills (only because I was scared of the AP test and Dr. Garza). It’s understandable because it’s hard to get better at speaking if classes already spend half the period giving instructions. 

Students learn more of their culture

It’s funny how students believe that they can learn more about their culture through school than from their family. Parents and relatives have a treasure trove of first-hand experiences. Many cultural studies taught in high schools are generalized, white-washed, and don’t speak to the diversity and complexity of the traditions involved. I don’t know why people even bring up this point.

Why Latin is also a bad language to take

As a side point to this argument, learning Latin isn’t the solution either. Sure, it’s beneficial for grades and also med school, but the point of learning a new language shouldn’t be to help your future career. The goal of a language is to interact with a different culture (in real life — not just with a textbook) and appreciate other ways of living. Ideally, you travel and study abroad, taste the different cuisines, and communicate with those who don’t have the privilege of learning another language.

Latin is a bit too far gone. There are no native speakers anymore and no traditions or culture to appreciate.

What language should I take in high school?

So what should bilingual students do when it comes to languages?

Learn the culture and language at home

Parents should help educate their children about their heritage, whether by visiting their grandparents more often or taking them to Sunday school. They should speak the language at home and have their children use the language as much as possible.

Test out and Take the AP Exam

Schools can and will allow you to test out of language credits. I was able to get language credit for Chinese 1-4 while also allowing me to take other classes in high school.

Furthermore, take the AP exam! You might have to study a bit outside of class, but it just shows you how good you are :P

Travel to the country and do immersion

I’ve found that going back to China for a few weeks and living in the city helped improve my speaking skills and also provided me some satisfaction of seeing my hard work pay off. I would try and buy groceries by myself and it was so fun to see people understand me. (It’s always better without your parents baby sitting you around)

As someone who is growing up in a bilingual household, use that additional language to your advantage. Life is so much more than trying to put as many blow-off classes in your schedule as possible.

Published inHigh SchoolRants

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