The problem with language classes at Jackson-Reed

Lila Chesser, Written Content Editor

I am enrolled in the most advanced Chinese course offered at Jackson-Reed: AP Chinese. But even with six years of Chinese classes under my belt, I’m not confident that I’ll pass the AP exam this spring.

In theory, studying a language for over an hour a few times a week should allow students to improve rapidly—but there are a few barriers to effectiveness.

One factor is that many language teachers at Jackson-Reed do not prohibit students from speaking English during class. Without practicing a language in real time, there is no way for students to improve fluency.

Chinese teacher Yin Chang said that although it is difficult, she tries to simulate an authentic environment in her classroom. She values encouragement, and strives to provide “a safe space for the student to [not be] afraid to speak and make mistakes.”

Nevertheless, convincing teenagers to opt out of English for an entire class period is a tough thing to do. 

School-sponsored international trips are a possible remedy. Spanish teacher Victor Vela Martinez plans to take some of his students to Alicante, Spain during spring break, but according to Jackson-Reed’s Travel Ambassador David Thompson, students have not been offered trips abroad since before the pandemic.

High school language classes also struggle to accommodate the various proficiency levels that students may arrive with. Because middle school language classes cover basic skills such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and reading, it’s easy to assume that most students have a solid language foundation, but this is often not the case. It can be difficult for teachers to assign classwork that fits every student’s level. 

The general attitude of Americans also contributes to the ineffectiveness of language classes. In the United States, monolingualism is normalized. This norm is substantiated by notions that language courses are less important than “core” classes such as math, science, and English, despite bilingualism serving as a path to many social and economic opportunities. 

Childhood is a critical period in one’s language-learning process; it is a time during which brains are still developing and information can be absorbed rapidly. However, the disorganization and lack of substantial learning that characterizes our school’s language programs have prevented me—and others—from achieving fluency in a foreign language. •