Opinion: Why a Lack of Languages is a Loss for Everyone
March 16, 2021
After sifting through the SHS course catalog in order to fill my schedule for next year, I have come to two startling conclusions: the first being that I should probably meet with my dean more often, and the second being that the variety in available language courses is disappointingly slim. Here at SHS, a student can choose from a grand total of four world languages: Spanish, French, Latin, and, if you’re feeling especially exotic, even Mandarin. For some, this is plenty. But when you consider how almost 7,000 languages are spoken daily, it does not seem like nearly enough are being offered at our school.
Of course, this is not a real argument for more language options at SHS; having more than six seems inconceivable. Besides, it’s much less about quantity than it is about practicality. While Spanish, French, and Mandarin are among the most frequently spoken languages in the world, it is here where Latin falls a bit short (quick disclaimer: Latin is an awesome language to learn, so I do not plan on dissuading anyone from taking it, or any other language, for that matter). My problem is that I don’t understand why Latin, spoken by less than 1% of the world’s population, is a language taught at SHS instead of something more widespread like Hindi, Russian, or even alternative forms of communication, like sign language. Yes, Latin is the root of every Romance tongue, all of which are key to global communication. Yes, Latin can be found across a myriad of disciplines, including medicine and law. Yes, Latin is the language that heavily inspired the names of Harry Potter spells. But where I have to draw the line is in its lack of everyday utility.
Unfortunately, you won’t find many store clerks who respond with a “gratias tibi ago” after you make a purchase, though Latin is still a vital language to at least have knowledge of. From the perspective of an effectively monolingual sophomore, it just seems like Latin has not been able to adapt to such an unpredictable, temperamental world, through no fault of its own. The words and phrases from more modern tongues like “konnichiwa” and “arrivederci” have become engraved into the ever-diversifying culture of America, whereas those from Latin simply have not. Once again, I don’t mean to knock on Latin’s prominence in our society, but if it is to be taught, then a broader range of more contemporary languages should be as well.
Regardless of all the Latinists who are now waiting at my home until the Ides of March, I still can’t help but wonder why we are stuck with such few choices. Maybe it’s because of how hard it is to find teachers for certain languages. Or, on the flip side, maybe it’s because of how hard it is for language teachers to find schools that are willing to offer open classrooms. And as I see it, the latter comes from a few different places, the most significant being a lack of student interest. Even Mandarin, which is currently taught at SHS, didn’t pick up enough brave volunteers to register for the class at SMS during my tenure there. Admittedly, I checked the box labeled “Spanish” from the beginning of middle school up until now mostly because I found it to be one of my easier classes and most of my friends were taking it. After a certain point, conjugating “-car”, “-gar”, and “-zar” verbs for four years can get tedious. But if my sixth-grade self knew that he would be diving into the history of Latin America and exploring the depth of Spain’s influence on the world, he would have signed up in a heartbeat even if he could barely say “hola”.
So, I lucked out. I relish the forty or fifty minutes a day that I get to spend outside of the U.S., completely immersed in a culture entirely new to me. Yet I can’t say the same for all of my classmates who, like me, initially chose to float along the wave of the majority and discard any interest for foreign language in return for an A. But that spark of passion produced only through education has become increasingly rare among our generation. Who knows how many potential flames have been reduced to ashes because of such a tight grasp on which languages we learn at school?
Now, I have come to one last conclusion after glossing over the course catalog once more. Foreign language is about exposure. Exposure to new people, exposure to new cultures, exposure to something, anything, different. In this bubble we like to call Scarsdale, it takes too much effort to look at the world like everyone else. Communication through an array of languages is our ticket to finally opening up to the rest of the world. Especially given the current state of affairs, communication with those around us and beyond is crucial to understanding our connections with other, non-Scarsdalian people. And it falls on our educators, our leaders, and most definitely our students to facilitate these necessary changes.