I think all of Argentina believes American high school culture is like American Pie. This movie has come up in multiple conversations and prompted questions like, "Why are the athletes always portrayed as the most popular kids in school?" or, "Do fraternities really exist?" These questions seem silly, but they're disturbingly telling about how American culture is perceived by outsiders. One question from a co-worker stuck with me more than why jocks date cheerleaders. "Is it as important to learn Spanish in the United States as it is to learn English here?"
But why shouldn't it be? Within the US, why isn't language given its fair share of attention and promotion, along with "core" subjects like science and math?
A Pew study projects that the American Latino population will comprise 20% of the entire US population by 2050. Although Spanish is the most commonly taught foreign language in secondary schools, and maintains a majority in college language classes, it isn't given the same level of importance as other subjects. Why aren't greater lengths taken to get young people interested in language learning?
Being bilingual is not only an important practical skill. It is also intellectually stimulating, and serves as an irreplaceable tool in appreciating other cultures, making sense of one's own culture, and understanding the world. These benefits are reinforced to me every day in my life in Buenos Aires, which is why I'm alarmed by the lack of enthusiasm for teaching language to native English-speaking students, especially when there are so many comprehensive programs for ESL (English as a Second Language).
There is something different about the way Americans perceive learning another language. It's viewed as something "extra," like physical education or chorus. And while all of these "extra" subjects should receive more importance than they currently do, language learning deserves a swift boost to the top of our education priorities because it is a unique subject that helps students conceive of their world in a new way.
Many students write themselves off as a "language person" or not. Early in my own Spanish education (I began in 7th grade), I wrote myself off as someone who just was not a "language person." These black-and-white terms, which deem language as an innate talent, discourage many kids who could potentially excel in foreign language. I have expatriate friends here in Buenos Aires who kick themselves for not trying harder in language classes or discarding it for other subjects, and have come here to learn Spanish for real.
In my own experience, I defied the binary "have"/"have not" perception of language learning, and actually turned myself into a "language person." Upset by my poor performance in 9th grade Spanish, I was determined to do better, and put the work in to do so.
Language takes a certain amount of intuition, but it takes a long time for that intuition to kick in. This intuition came ten years after I began learning Spanish - with a college minor, Barcelona abroad semester, and subsequent post-college move to Buenos Aires, Argentina. All the work I put in to learning Spanish enabled me to take an entirely Spanish-speaking job at Young & Rubicam, and the learning by no means ended there. That's the thing about language learning - it's always evolving and happens to be, if you put the effort in, incredibly rewarding. I began to be able to express myself in another facet of the Spanish language - the language of advertising.
Not to say that my path to learning Spanish has always been smooth; in college I struggled with complex Marquez, in Barcelona I couldn't understand Catalan, and here in Buenos Aires there are unique verb forms that are hard to understand let alone emulate. But being able to communicate and form relationships that I otherwise could not have really made my experience in Argentina worthwhile. Being a translator for my sick father in a remote hospital in Patagonia was terrifying, but after the scare was over, a reminder of the power of speaking a second language. Communicating in another language requires a level of shamelessness that takes years and practice to acquire, and the skill cannot be determined from beginner levels of language teaching.
Language is like a muscle -- it has to constantly be flexed in order to stay in shape. I wish more young people were interested in training themselves in language. I spoke to a high school Spanish class in December, but my passion for this language does not seem to inspire. Do we, as Americans, believe that just speaking our language, and only our language, is enough?
How many people in the world could we meet -- potential friends, lovers, spouses, professors, if we were able to truly communicate?
Second language learning should take a larger precedence in the American education. It would be selfish and egocentric for it to not. It also teaches us so much about our own language - our word usage or sentence structure. Men in Argentina definitely speak more poetically (sorry boys.) There is always a new accent to learn, colloquialisms to share (Che, Boludo!) or phrases to decipher. When I moved here after college I realized that I could wax poetic about the Spanish Civil War, but I couldn't ask an Argentine teenager the most basic liunfardo (slang) - what's up? A friend's father who lives in Panama came for dinner and our Spanishes were totally different - now I am intrigued by trying to differentiate accents or why in Panama you can ask for your drink on "las rocas" (a Spanish word they have created) but here you have to ask for hielo (ice.)
I realize now how much English and Spanish are connected -- which words are appropriate for certain situations. It is a skill that I continue to learn every day. I am still not a "language person," but if I made myself one, I believe anyone can.
It's a skill that should be just as American as apple pie. Just without, you know, that whole pie scene.
Follow Meredith Fineman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheFFJD