Language classes need to emphasize more casual aspects of communication

Palo Alto High School is widely renowned for its exceptional academics. Foreign language classes offered here are no exception to this reputation. However, the world language classes at Paly could be improved if greater emphasis is placed on colloquialism and conversational speech.

Foreign language textbooks are crammed with formal statements and sentences that are appropriate in a classroom setting but irrelevant when on the streets of a foreign country. To make language studies relevant and applicable to real-life scenarios, Paly’s world language classes should focus less on elaborate formalities, and more on conversational speech.

Every language has its own set of colloquialisms and slang used in casual conversation. In the English language, slang has grown more apparent in conversation. Phrases such as “like” and “yeah” are inserted in what seems like every sentence in every-day speech. They serve as sentence fillers and ways to express certain feelings.

These kinds of phrases are not taught in foreign language classes not because they don’t exist in other languages, but because they are excluded from the formal speech that is scribed in textbooks.

The formal style of speech taught in Paly language classes is appropriate in a professional setting, wherein the student will need to communicate fluently in a polished manner. However, many students believe that when travelling abroad, whether it be for leisure or professional reasons, knowing “street talk” would be more helpful.

Senior Briana Billups believes that learning conversational speech would have helped retain her knowledge of the French language.

“It probably would have helped me remember things if I knew they were relevant,” Billups said.

This sentiment is shared by many students. Junior Ella Mernyk agrees that less focus should be spent on impertinent expressions.

“It just seems like the stuff we learn won’t really help us in the long run,” Mernyk said. “It’s more important to learn the things that a person would actually say to you if you were to travel to a different country.”

Professor emeritus Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California argues that “the range of discourse that the student can be exposed to in a second language classroom is quite limited” in his linguistics study Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition.

According to Krashen, one’s knowledge of formal rules in a second language play little role in his or her “conversational competence.”

Students learning how to conduct everyday conversations would greatly benefit if Paly were to focus less on grammatical perfections and fluent vocabulary, and more on students’ conversational capabilities.

In addition, many phrases and terms that are essential to navigating in a foreign country are not taught until late in the language track.

According to traveling advisers such as The US Travel Insurance Association and On Call International any person traveling to a foreign country should know how to express a medical emergency or sickness. At Paly, illness and emergencies are not taught in a Chinese course until the last lesson of Chinese 3.

The bottom line is that the conversations taught to students in world language classes are designed to educate students in eloquent, articulate parlance, which is of little use on the streets of a different country.