FACEOFF: Should Foreign Language Classes Be Mandatory?

Katriona Page and Julia Strasius

YES (K.P.)

Math, English, science and history: the four core subjects widely agreed should be taught in school. Mandatory foreign language classes, however, cause more controversy, even though they should not; learning a foreign language has numerous benefits. These include introducing students to new cultures and thereby broadening their horizons, forcing them to commit to studying at a high level and opening up job opportunities later on. 

Foreign language classes — the good ones, at least — are not solely devoted to learning the language; they also involve learning about the culture and society associated with that language, and awareness of cultures other than one’s own remains incredibly important. For example, Americans are so often accused of being self-centered and uninterested and, when it comes to languages at least, the statistics back it up: 9% of Americans are multilingual, compared to over half of Europeans. Why not do whatever possible to counter that stereotype, to show the world that we do care about other places and people? Making a foreign language course optional tells the world we have no interest in navigating or adapting to a society other than our own.

Additionally, foreign language requirements often demand a minimum of two years of Ianguage credits. This means that the majority of students must take at least the second level of a language (and many students choose to continue onto levels three, four and beyond). Even if students do not become fluent, it still teaches them important life skills, such as how to deal with challenging work, push themselves to their mental limits and commit to a goal. In fact, the skills acquired while learning a second language translate to other academic areas, as well, and students who take a second language not only do better in other academic subjects, but they also have better test scores, cognitive abilities and overall mastery of their first language, too. 

On top of this, learning a foreign language in high school can provide employment opportunities later in life. Proficiency in a second language looks good on a resume, regardless of what job one  applies to. Even if it does not seem directly relevant or applicable — for example, if one applies for an accounting position — employers know it might come in handy, especially as our world becomes more and more interconnected. Not to mention, multilingualism reflects dedication and hard work (learning a second language is difficult!), two qualities valuable across disciplines. 

Lastly, it opens up an entirely new field: translation. The increasing need for translators in fields from medicine to entertainment to law means that from 2013 to 2019, nearly 10,000 translation jobs were added to the U.S. job force, according to Statista. Some try out translating and realize it is their true passion, a career they would not have even considered if not for the language they learned in high school. For others, translating serves as a safety net: perhaps they need a little extra money, or a temporary position when between jobs. Translating can fill in the gaps. The best part is it does not require years and years of extra degrees and expensive education — it is a skill one learned in high school. 

So even though it might seem like a pain now — especially after a night of slogging through verb conjugations — learning a second language has several benefits that serve students well long after high school; no matter what happens, a second language is a lifelong asset. 


NO (J.S.)

Foreign languages have become a staple part of one’s high school experience. Whether one learns German, Spanish, Mandarin or Japanese, most students take these classes in order to fulfill their graduation requirements. Schools usually recommend two to three years of a foreign language, and take these classes into consideration during the college admissions process. Therefore, this pressure forces students into learning languages that they have no real interest in learning, but do just to get accepted into colleges and earn the credits needed. These requirements are problematic in more ways than one. Not only do students struggle with actually learning the foreign language, but the classes are not as beneficial as other subjects. Enrollment in these classes typically end in a student wondering: “What are they even saying?”

U.S. high school classes do not typically do the best job of teaching foreign language classes. According to the Atlantic, today, less than one percent of American adults become truly proficient in the foreign language that they had learned in a U.S. class. Additionally, according to the Center for Applied Second Language Studies, no more than 15% of students become proficient enough in a language to converse easily with one another, even after completing years of classes. Although putting in the effort to learn the language could help one in an employment process and college application process, most high school students do not reach a level where they would have the opportunity to use their experience in professional settings. Students living outside of the U.S. must study English because of the numerous opportunities that the language would provide for them. However, the benefits that taking high school language courses either in-person or online provide remain slim. 

Foreign language classes also take up a block in a student’s schedule that another subject could potentially fill. With a strict high school curriculum, students do not have numerous chances to take different classes. Therefore, one could argue that taking AP science classes instead, like biology and physics, would open a new realm of knowledge and possibilities for a student that they could not otherwise receive in a foreign language class. For example, taking a Computer Science Programming class instead would give a student the skills for numerous jobs in different fields. 

Making the foreign language requirement optional would filter out students uninterested in the subject and foster a classroom where each person is passionate about learning more. Students should feel encouraged to learn a language on their own, out of pure enjoyment. 

Ultimately, school curriculums should not require foreign language classes. Learning a foreign language in the U.S. has few benefits, while students rarely achieve proficiency even after studying for years. Depending on the student, taking other classes may help them more when pursuing jobs or applying to specific colleges. Nevertheless, colleges continue to have foreign language study as a requirement, limiting students who do not want to take them. The time has come to consider a change to this policy.