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Column - Should students have to learn a foreign language?

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Should study of a foreign language be required in high school or college?

I used to think so; now I'm not so sure.

After all, how many foreign-language students go on to advanced study of a language to become fluent enough to use that language in their lives? Most who took a year or two of a language can remember only a phrase or two of what they learned.

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Those "Rosetta Stone" commercials imply that acquiring language proficiency is a snap. When the people on that commercial say they learned to speak a language, what do they mean by "speak?" Do they mean a handful of handy phrases to be used abroad when shopping or asking directions to the nearest bathroom? Do they mean an ability to carry on a deep conversation or merely a kindergarten-level give-and-take with native speakers?

Now, don't get me wrong. Rosetta Stone is as good or better than any language-learning program available. However, I think people should know that learning a language, truly learning it, is a lot more difficult than they would suppose. It takes extended time, effort and dedicated study.

I took two years of French in high school. I chose that language because I admired so much the French painters and authors. My high-school hope was to learn French well enough at least to read some of those writers in the original. It was a thrill, many years later, when I visited France, to be able to speak "un peu de francais" (a little French), and I do mean "a little." I knew enough to get by -- barely. Crude as my language skills were, it was exhilarating to hear living French all around me; the language I'd only known as classroom-textbook exercises years before.

"J'entre dans la salle de classe," is what the stunning Ms. Schneiderhan said to us as she entered that classroom at St. Cloud's South Junior High School the first day of French class in 1961. "I'm entering the classroom" is what the words meant. In those school days, I never even imagined I'd someday get to go to France. When I did, in 1981, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

After my visit to France, I was determined to improve my French. I studied vocabulary, pondered lists of verb tenses, listened to all kinds of videocassettes (and later CDs) similar to Rosetta Stone. After all these years, I'm still studying French with no illusions that I will come even close to mastering it. It's an ongoing struggle I enjoy.

I can now read French novels fairly well, although with a French-English dictionary ready at one elbow and sometimes even the English version of the novel propped up nearby on the table. Reading French is still one of my methods of studying it, trying to improve. Another method is to order French movies via Netflix so I can try to understand the dialogue without peeking at the subtitles. I peek a lot. Partly because there is so much slang, which French characters rattle off at such lickety-split speed.

Some people, including most kids, have an inborn facility for quickly learning languages. How I envy them. What a pleasure it would be to spend another lifetime mastering many languages. It's not to be. But meantime, I am enjoying my adventures in French studies.

I've always been grateful for my "professeurs de francais" -- Miss Schneiderhan, who later became Joanne Perry of Alexandria, by the way; and Mr. Gerald Fortier, who hailed originally from Quebec. I'm glad French was an academic offering in high school. Otherwise, I'm sure I would never have pursued it.

I hope lots of students get "hooked" on a foreign language the way I got hooked on French. I'm still not sure foreign languages should be required, but I do hope they will at least be always and everywhere available for any student eager to embark on a lifetime language adventure.

• • •

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at dennisdalman@jetup.net.

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