Speaking the language

My sixth grader casually mentioned the other day that he’s decided on the language he wants to take next year: French. Grafton Middle School offers a quarter of French and a quarter of Spanish to all its sixth grade students; in seventh grade, they choose which language they will learn.

My son did well in his French quarter but has yet to tackle Spanish. He told me his friends who are taking Spanish told him it was too hard. It was on this less-than-stellar review that he was basing his language choice.

My husband and I, who between us have roughly eight years of high school and college French, spoke as one: sorry, kid, you’re taking Spanish.

“And Mandarin when you get to high school,” my husband added.

It’s really nothing personal against the French. I’ve just never found the language especially helpful, save for one visit to Quebec (and, even then, I failed to put my translation skills to good use until I was halfway up the stairs of Mont Royal. “Mont is mountain!” I wailed to my now-husband. “These aren’t just stairs to a good view! We’re climbing a mountain!”).  Not in Boston, where my sophomore roommate was from Peru and Spanish-speakers were in high demand at various temp jobs. Not in Marlborough or Framingham, where an influx of Brazilian immigrants would have made Spanish — so close to Portuguese! — an asset when covering the communities.

When I was in seventh grade and choosing a language for high school, the choice was spelled out to me: the smart kids took French, the not-quite-so-smart took Spanish. Oh, you could take Italian if you had that background or German if you were so inclined (of course, the passage of Prop. 2 1/2 would soon eliminate those options), but I was an honors-track kid. I took French.

Le langage est source de malentendus.

Oh, have I mentioned the one part of French class I took away with me? I can still remember large swaths of  “Le Petit Prince,” the child’s story our substitute French teacher (an ex-nun) gave us when she realized the roman policier my class was avidly translating contained mild sex and bad language. Looking back, I think my original French teacher was brilliant — we were racing through that sexy mystery. Our major takeaway from “Le Petit Prince” were yearbook quotations for the pretentious (Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux).

Le langage est source de malentendus. Language is the source of misunderstandings. My son was in a snit for most of the weekend, in part because of the course selection form he carried to school this morning. We’re requesting that he be placed in Spanish; he’s continuing with band for another year.

“I’m going to be the only one taking Spanish!” he says.

Les enfants seuls savent ce qu’ils cherchent. But in this case, it’s the parents who realize what he should be looking for is a language he’s actually going to use.

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28 thoughts on “Speaking the language

  1. Your son will thank you some day. I wish I had taken Spanish in High School/College. I interact with so many Spanish speaking people now, it would have been a great asset to my career.

    Reminds me of this time I was at a McDonalds (I let my kids eat there, I won’t), I had just ordered food for my kids and was waiting for it, when this gentleman came to return something because it wasn’t prepared right (Go figure). Well, this pimple-faced kid behind the counter started rattling off something in Spanish. I don’t know what he said but, whatever it was, the guy returning the food got pretty ticked off. He said “I speak fluid Spanish, kid, how would you like me to report you to the manager”. Well, it turns out the pimple-faced kid behind the counter WAS the manager. 🙂

  2. I had pretty much the same conversation with my 6th grader, so at least they can be alone together in Spanish class. That should make them both happy!

  3. I think we had this conversation at the beginning of the year, because I told him I knew he would have at least one friend taking Spanish if HIS mother had any say in it. 🙂

    Bob, I’m pretty sure the guys in the cafeteria at my old work place didn’t realize how much gutter Portuguese I really understood…

  4. Jenn, I was in the same spot your son was in several years ago. I wanted to learn French after a brief stint with it and my parents insisted on Spanish. I too, was an honors track kid and wanted to stay with my peers in French. All these years later, I still disagree with a lot of the decisions my parents made, but the choice of language is not one of them.

    Like Bob C., mentioned, I’ve been in situations where it was helpful to understand Spanish. I can’t ever remember being in a situation where I wish I knew French other than the one visit to Montreal.

    And for what it’s worth, having tried both languages, Spanish in my opinion is much easier to learn than French.

  5. Whatever happened to Latin? I think kids should have to take Latin.

    And if we’re going to talk about languages that help….I think we’d be better off investing teachers for Chinese & Arabic.

    I agree. French is pretty useless in these parts! Too bad MA schools aren’t pushing ENGLISH as a the primary language.

  6. Here’s another parent who told her 6th grade daughter to take Spanish for the same reasons… she is much more likely to use it in this area than French (and I say that even though her grandmother’s first languange is French!)

    My niece is currently majoring in Latin at Assumption college. I’ve wondered what she can do with that degree other than teach more Latin, but I guess that by knowing Latin, she can pick up many other languanges easily.

  7. DB, that’s good to know. I just hope he appreciates it (I recently discovered he reads my blog. See kiddo? Mom is right).

    I think Latin’s offered at GHS along with Mandarin, which I’m psyched for the kids to take. Chinese should be useful!

  8. Don’t know why I made the same typo twice…”languanges”?

    Oh yeah, I skipped the typing course in high school! ; )

  9. It surprises me they still offer French as an alternative to Spanish. As someone with four years in high school and two in college of it, I can say the practical applications of that are nearly nonexistent. Nearly!

    By comparison, imagine how valuable four years of high school Farsi would be in today’s, and tomorrow’s, world!

  10. Keith, Farsi would be helpful for all those Persian vacations I take with the family. What would be better is if they offfered Ebonics as an alternative.

  11. French, in my umble opinion, is a waste. Except for that two week vacation you might have planned to gay Paris…totally useless. But think of all those French teachers …deeply embedded in school heirarchy after years and years of service, cringing (obstructing)every time they hear the word mandarin!

  12. I took Spanish in high school (even though I was on the honors track — ahem…) and again in college. I haven’t had the chance to use it much, but wish I could. It sure came in handy when we vacationed in Puerto Rico a few years ago, that’s for sure. I felt like a native — hubby, on the other hand, was lost.

    My catholic high school had long since abandoned the Latin requirement by the time I arrived in the 80s (it was optional by then). But I do think Latin is helpful for anyone going into any field requiring a strong understanding of English. It’s the basis for so much of our language.

    Surprisingly, where Latin really comes in handy is during a medical crisis (as it did during mine). The language of medicine is Latin-based, and knowing the Latin roots of words helped me to better interpret my cardiologist’s notes and medical records that otherwise would have seemed like they were written in code.

  13. I knew enough Latin (and basic biology) to figure out stuff as a health reporter. I could at least translate what doctors/researchers were saying most of the time.

    I think as an adult, when I look back at how I chose which language to learn, I find the criteria rather offensive. If the message I was getting was “smart kids take French,” what was the message the kids delegated to Spanish getting?

    It’s nowhere near as offensive as the time in fifth grade when we re-enacted the Civil War on parents’ night by holding a slave auction — with the slaves in blackface save for the one African American kid in class — but still more than a little strange.

  14. Or… did anyone else who’s now in their 30s or 40s have this experience… some kind of “sensitivity” training (we had it in the 7th grade) in which students were divided into groups — some were Nazis, some were Jews, some were bystanders — and for several days each group followed specific rules for how they would treat each other and be treated? I was in the bystander group, and it was truly horrifying to watch… and I’ll bet that any teacher who attempted that kind of training today would be (rightfully) fired.

    And of course, now, there’s no way I’d let my son participate in something like that at school… over my dead body! Jeez, where the hell were our parents back then?

  15. I have an idea, let’s have a class where the 1/2 the kids are Democrats & the other 1/2 are Republicans!! Get them ready for the real world!

    In my opinion, there is too much sensitivity training in schools. It’s all about everyone feeling good, no losers, no trophies, no red pens. God forbid we feed our kids a cupcake on their birthdays! Oh, did I say “god” oops, right up there with not being able to say Merry Christmas.

  16. And if we’re talking about taking education back to basics and eliminating all the PC stuff (which I completely agree with) – let’s ditch responsive classroom which teaches kids that EVERYTHING is a negotiation. May seem like a cute idea when they’re five but it’s not so “precious” when they hit middle school (not to mention the car keys debate). Our district has spent a lot of money on this program in the past. I wonder if it’s still a line item….hmmmm…….

    And how many remember about 10 years back when one of elected officials tried to pursue a “French Immersion” course for the high school? I told him that I’d vote for it only if they got the MCAS scores up for reading in English, first. And if that wasn’t an option, then I’d actively push for an “Ebonics Immersion” course.

    Yo, yo….

  17. I think Ebonics would be more of a “Sub”-mersion. 🙂

    I’m so glad my 7th grader is in private school. They do things ‘Old School’ (Pun intended) the teachers teach…and the students learn.

    When my son was at Grafton Elementary, I noticed his writing skills were deteriorating. When I brought it up to the teachers, their response was: “Don’t worry about it, he’ll be doing key-boarding soon, and won’t need good hand-writing skills.”

    I think that may have been the straw that broke this camel’s back.

  18. I think responsive classroom is good when dealing with bullying or at least cutting it off before it starts. I can’t say I’ve noticed either child excessively negotiating with us, but they do know there’s a line separating where discussion is allowed and where parental word is final.

    As a lefty who spent 20 years of her life covering press conferences, standing up, with a pen in one hand and a skinny notebook in the other, I cannot comment on handwriting. Except my teachers were always perplexed by the fact that I’m left-handed. They would argue with each other over which way I should tilt my paper and hold my pen, because it was apparently so unusual to have a left-handed child.

    Also, Ebonics jokes are totally 10 years ago. I’ve noticed my middle schooler talking in Web-speak, however: “OMG!”

  19. I joke with my son that he should study pre-med because he hand writing is horrible. No one corrects him either. Now, they’re all into the whole texting thing. I was talking to a teacher in high school. She said sometimes her students will hand in work with IDK written as a response. ugh…

    And for all of you not up on your texting lingo, that would be “I don’t know”.

    We’re doomed

  20. I digress…but I wanted to say…. I peeked over Jenn’s shoulder … and saw her notepad the other day, and …. we’re talking mind-boggling!!!!

  21. I’ve spent the last half of my career saying “uh, no, that’s not shorthand.”

    I can write neatly when I’m not in a hurry. Really, I can. But I don’t use cursive (no, Michael, that wasn’t cursive) and no one needs to look at my notes except me, right?

  22. I’m with most of you here, I took two years of French. I still remember the first dialog we had to memorize.
    “Michael, Anne, êtes-vous là ? Pas, nous regardons la télévision pourquoi ?”
    Total waste of time and if I had known the smart kids took French, that would have been a clue for me to avoid French. Spanish would have been much more useful.

    Funny side note… When kids with special needs hit middle school, they can get a waiver to skip language classes. I got waivers for two of my boys, but forgot to ask for a waiver for Eric, who has a significant disability. He somehow ended up in Spanish class! I thought this was pretty funny. But turned out he loves learning Spanish words, so I kept him in the class and got permission for him to repeat Spanish instead of moving on to French class.

  23. I wasn’t thinking cursive…I was thinking more like german WWII code. I say that as a lefty myself, and spouse of a pediatrician.

  24. I think it’s neat that they have the choice! I didn’t get to choose a language until I got to HS, and our choices were Spanish and German (weird, huh?)

    Like 80% of my honors/AP friends, I chose German, but I chose it because my family came here from Germany. My parents were both very supportive and thrilled. I took a year of independent study Latin my senior year (I was going to be a scientist, yes I was!), and continued taking German in college.

    I don’t understand why the kids think Spanish is “easier” than French – both are romance languages and have much in common.

  25. Ok – I never took French and I do have to say that I wished I knew it when I was working in London on International Environmental Treaties. The offical languages of the International Courts is both English and French but French speaking nations refuse to submit documents in English…so if your child does want a career in international law…then I would say French is actually necessary. Now, I didn’t say there WERE any jobs in the international legal arena…but you know, if one lived in that sort of a dream world or knew someone who knew someone ..french is the way to go

  26. Wow. I don’t even know where to begin in response to the comments!

    As a parent of a GMS graduate, I can say that most students have taken Spanish and I believe there is far less need for French classes. I took French from 7th grade through college and then took some Spanish too. I found Spanish easier but maybe my capacity for learning another language was greater. Immersion is the best way to learn a language but with the demands on public schools, I don’t see that as a reality.

    Parents of other generations probably were thinking the same things we are about our kids texting ‘language’. Groovy, cool, bad, sick, bitchin’, BMOC (for the preppies), freak out, duh…for example.

    I don’t even know how to respond to the ebonics comments. I sense that it is being referred to in a derogatory manner in the posts. Obviously, ebonics would not be my first choice of spoken language for my kids and that is not my point. There is historical significance to ebonics or African American vernacular. Originally this was a way in which slaves would communicate once brought together in this country. Currently, in many areas of the country, there is a pedagogical approach to changing students’ speaking habits to conventional English. This does not address the CHOICE of older (suburban, white) kids to adopt the style of speaking. The language, dress, music etc of the urban culture has spread into the suburbs. So I don’t know if you are referring to students who choose this style of speaking much as you might have chosen to say ‘cool, rad, badass’ and listened to The Rolling Stones, Clash or Bob Dylan (depending on your preference) to counter your parents choices in music and culture. Or do you refer to those students who learn to speak at home in a dialect that is not traditional once they get to school?

    As for Responsive Classroom, I am kind of surprised there is much negative to say about it. In my opinion, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to continue the themes of respect at GHS and GMS where I have often found the staff to lack respect for students and students for each other. As many point out, middle school is a tough age and those are the years that kids try to find a fit and might act out differently. So wouldn’t it make sense that we need to reinforce caring, respect, responsibility etc EVEN MORE at this age? And I understand that middle and high school can be the worst ages to fit in and when you finally hit the upper class stage of your education you can take advantage of it. We all know it is tough to be on the bottom rung (6th grade, freshmen) and all sh** runs downhill but what I hear about the treatment of freshmen is surprising. Are the teachers really unaware of what goes on? Or does it not concern them? As for GMS, there has got to be an age appropriate program to foster support for each other and caring etc. I don’t expect the schools to teach my child morals if I didn’t at home, obviously. I do want them to encourage and MODEL good behaviors.

  27. I agree with Amy that if you can learn Spanish, you can learn French because they are quite similar. There was no sense of tracking with languages where I went to school. Honors students could be found in Spanish class just as readily as French class. And while I would agree that Spanish has the most practical application in the U.S., I disagree that learning French is a waste – no language is a waste. The only waste is that our schools aren’t able to introduce languages at the primary level. And regarding Responsive Classroom – I think it’s one of the more progressive and positive attributes of the Grafton schools.

  28. Re: French being a waste, I should clarify that it was a waste of time for me personally. I honestly do wish I was bilingual and have been trying to learn Spanish on my own, since it is much more useful in the US. But I’m finding this much harder at my age;-) I’d actually like to see Spanish as a second language in the US, similar to Canada having English and French.

    I also agree with “been there…mom” regarding Responsive Classroom. Understanding the importance of caring, respect, responsibility, etc. is certainly at least as useful as learning a language. I would argue, even more important! But again, I have a unique perspective. This approach is also extra beneficial for children with disabilities in the public schools. I have no doubt that this program has been helpful to my boys being accepted by their peers.

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