Just a few weeks ago I found myself in the elevator of SUNY Cortland’s Old Main with my French professor, Marie Ponterio, after a long day at school. She asked me how I was doing. From behind a set of tired eyes, I explained that I was exhausted from juggling my classes, heavy course load, and commuting to and from my observation site. I told her that I wished I was still in her class learning how to speak French at a level I had never thought I was capable of. She turned and said, through her French accent, “I wish everyone could hear you right now.” She then mentioned a meeting that she had to intend the next day, in which the foreign language requirement for students such as myself was being reconsidered.
Later that night, I sat next to my friend, Jen in the library as we both discussed our feelings about the potential lowering of our requirements. We decided to research the upcoming meeting, the views of our professors, and co-blog about the issue at hand. Jen targeted her research on the Spanish department, while I took up French.
My Interview with Madame Ponterio
In the beginning of the interview, my French professor began by explaining that the foreign language requriement for students obtaining BAs was under review. Instead of taking a foreign language up to the Intermediate level, the college students would only have to complete beginner courses at the 100 level. The main reasoning behind all of this was to make it easier for transfer students to graduate in four years, and to “free up resources” (cut funding, professors, and thus save money).
The foreign language department gathered their research that backed their programs, and worked with other colleagues to prove their case at this meeting. Thankfully, the “proposal had turned into a conversation” by the end of the meeting. Madame Ponterio expressed that the dean had been open-minded about the importance of foreign language, and was hopeful about the future of the reinforced importance of foreign language in education.
Why Study Foreign Language?
Especially at a school that is known for its education programs, students must be able to understand the relevance of foreign language. Marie described, in response to the potential removal of a genuine foreign language education: “You’re sending the wrong message, you’re telling students that foreign languages are not important. In this century, that is a big mistake.”
At SUNY Cortland, where many of the students are going to eventually become teachers one day, they must be able to understand that multiculturalism is a very real part of the educational system, and therefore, there will be English Language Learners in all classrooms.
When Marie Ponterio attended school in France, she had a particularly hard time learning English. Through her own intrinsic motivation, she traveled to America and learned both the language and culture. Since she admittedly struggled learning a foreign language, she understands the many difficulties that the students in her courses face. “I can honestly say that I have been successful as a teacher because I know where they are coming from,” she described.
In this same way, future teachers of America need to be able to empathize with their students in the same way Marie can. The only way in which they can do this is if they take a foreign language up to the intermediate level; getting down the basics is nothing compared to the battles that English Language Learners face in the American classroom on a daily basis.
My French professor is full of statistics about the importance of French. She constantly reminded us that it was relevant: “50% of your language comes from French…there are 3,221 words that are identical in spelling and meaning…people who have never studied French already know 15,000 French words that are either identical or extremely close in spelling.” Since there is so much French in the English language, French students, on average, tend to do a better job on the SATs than students who study other foreign languages.
It is not just the French language and culture that students are learning in these classrooms: “We teach them English. They learn a lot in the foreign language class…I teach them spelling and punctuation,” Marie describes. Through learning French, students learn more about the English language and grammar.
As a French student and and English major, I could readily admit to Marie that I had no direct grammar instruction in my lifetime, and therefore, had no idea what a subject and a direct object was until I took her class, and I needed to know in order to correctly format French sentences. Through foreign language instruction, I simultaneously learned more about my own language as well.
I was shocked when I found out the foreign language requirement was being challenged by outside forces. In an increasingly multicultural society, and at a school that is teaching future teachers, it would be genuinely ironic if this requirement disappeared. We can’t expect our own students to learn how to speak English when we have no basis from which to empathize with them. As described by Marie Ponterio, the foreign language requirement for future teachers such as myself is not an obstacle, but an opportunity.
In my departure, Madame Ponterio said: “I think that because you have that exposure to French that it will make you a better English teacher.” I wholeheartedly embraced this compliment. Good teachers are able to connect with and understand their students, and when I have students in my own classroom struggling with the English language, I will be able to know where they’re coming from.