HomeNews & Views Ask Away: 5 Questions for a High School Learner of Chinese, Spanish & French

Ask Away: 5 Questions for a High School Learner of Chinese, Spanish & French


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Albert—a high school freshman (and potential future Foreign Service Officer!) who shares his favorite tips on practicing language skills. 

Albert banner image

1. As a high school student, what are some of your concerns about the current state of language education? Why do students need to advocate for programs?

From what I have seen in my middle and high schools, language classes not doing a great job in developing a passion for language learning in students. Many times, I feel that students are being bogged down by grammar and other technical aspects of the language, with much less emphasis on being able to communicate and using the language in their daily lives.

Personally, I felt that my middle school classes were too slow and were, frankly, rather boring. Everything we did in the classroom revolved around a textbook and the repetitive activities associated with it. On the other hand, I see other academic subjects being much more successful in capturing attention and emphasizing their importance to students and parents. I see many academically talented and hardworking students put forth their effort in math team, in science fair, and in debate, yet language lovers seem few and far between. To them, learning languages and taking language classes is something that lacks both academic rigor and fundamental importance to their lives.

Because of this, in my school AP Spanish Language and AP Spanish Literature classes can sometimes be hard to fill; and even if they are filled, a large portion of the students are native heritage speakers. The problem is no different for less academically oriented students, which often drop out after sitting through the two years of language classes required for state scholarships.

If students and parents fail to speak out for language education, the problem will only continue to get worse, ultimately resulting in future generations lacking the skills needed for global awareness in an increasingly globalized world.

2. You speak Chinese with your family at home: Why do you believe it is important for heritage speakers, like yourself, to maintain those language skills?

There is actually an interesting story behind that. Despite being born in the U.S., I spent my early childhood in China, meaning that my first language was technically Mandarin. However, when I was six my family and I moved back to the U.S., with me not being able to speak English at all.

Being young and in an English-dominated environment, I quickly picked up the language and became about as fluent as my peers in about six months. As I believe many heritage speakers experience, it can feel weird or uncool to use the language spoken by your parents in school or other public settings. Despite my objections while in elementary school, my parents continued to teach me from grade-level language arts textbooks brought over from China.

It was not until later on in middle school that I became interested in learning foreign languages and had the dream of working abroad.

It was then that I realized the importance of Mandarin in the global economy and in international diplomacy. I suddenly felt more privileged than burdened when it came to knowing and learning a language that was immensely difficult for almost all non-natives.

I also grew glad that I could easily understand the conversation of my parents and their friends, while my Chinese-American friends often could not. Being a person with a high level in Mandarin and English is by no means a piece of cake, and it is a goal that I have not yet achieved, but I certainly now believe that it is a very worthy goal.

3. What advice would you have for students who are looking for ways to use and practice their language(s) outside the classroom—any tips?

– Talk to Yourself

For me, this is one of the most important things when it comes to being able to converse and speak without first translating from English. Try making up sentences in the language that you want to learn about the things that you see around you, or whatever triggers your train of thought. For example, if I were walking and saw a squirrel, I might say to myself, “La ardilla sube el arbol” (which means “the squirrel climbs the tree”) or something like that. If you don’t know a particular word, make sure to look it up and use it in your thoughts. Once you have a decent level in the language, try explaining topics or concepts to yourself, such as current events or what you learn in school.

– Use Media for Immersion

One of the major benefits of this is that, after a certain period of time, you will begin to understand and enjoy the material. Many shows and movies on Netflix are dubbed in other languages and have subtitles as well; thus, you can enjoy some of your favorite TV shows while learning a language. (The only problem I find with this is that sometimes the subtitles and the audio does not exactly match, so it might be better to wait until you can more or less understand the language being spoken before trying this.)

Perhaps an even better way would be to find original content on YouTube from countries that speak the language you are learning. Many popular YouTubers have subtitles in both the original language and in English, which can help when you are starting out. There is a tremendous variety of videos and of creators that can even help you be exposed to the range of accents/dialects within a language as well as the pace and sound of conversational speech.

– Listen to Music

The first time that you listen, have the lyrics pulled up and look up any words or expressions that you don’t know, so that you understand everything that they are singing. Then, I usually like to just put the song into the playlist that I put on in the background, so that I am constantly exposed to the song and eventually absorb the lyrics. Before you know it, you will be using elements of the song in your speaking and writing!

– Talk with Native Speakers…

…a thing that I personally was very afraid of. After all, talking to yourself is not the same as talking with a live person! My biggest fear at the time was that either they would talk too fast for me to understand or my sentences would be too scrambled to mean anything. However, my best advice would be talking first to a native speaker that you know, if at all possible. By talking to a friend, you likely won’t be as nervous about making mistakes; furthermore, they will most definitely be impressed if you can even converse with them on a basic level. From then on, it will be easier to use your language abilities with strangers you meet in public.

4. Have you begun to consider college and/or professional plans? Do languages or cultural skills play a role in those projects?

Certainly! As I mentioned earlier, I do have the dream of being able to travel for a living. Because of this, my dream job as of now would be working in the Foreign Service as a diplomat or ambassador.

Knowing languages certainly plays an important role in being able to converse with and understand the local leaders and people. In-demand and hard to learn languages (such as Mandarin and Arabic) are especially important and can even boost my application. In college, I am not yet sure what exactly I would like to study, as it is still quite a few years away… However, as of now, I am considering foreign affairs or economics.

5. What would you tell a student who is considering learning languages (maybe even multiple languages at once) but is unsure if he or she should proceed?

Learning languages can be fun and rewarding, if you choose to make it that way!

I would be lying if I said that it was easy and without obstacles. After all, doing something well will always be hard and will require effort. Yet I believe language learning is unique in that language is something that we use in every moment of the day, both for work and for leisure. It can feel like an uphill slope at times, when you have to look up 20 words just to get through a 2 minute video, and when the pace of conversation by native speakers makes their words sound like gibberish. But when you reach that threshold of basic understanding, I am sure that your effort will pay off.

It is hard to describe the feeling you get when you come to the realization that you can converse with and understand more people and their culture than you ever could before.

There a tons of fun and easy ways to incorporate languages into your everyday activities, which can make gaining proficiency in your second (or third!) language even more enjoyable.  In addition to the dubbed shows Albert mentions above, be sure to also check out the wealth of international films and shows produced in a language other than English—for some of which we’ve featured movie trailers and reviews here on the blog under Foreign Flick Friday.

Have a favorite language learning tip of your own? Don’t forget to tell us about it @LeadWLanguages on social media!