Should 11-year-olds be allowed to choose what foreign language to study or should it be up to the parents?
My son brought a note home from school the other day which said that 6th graders must now choose which language they want to start studying next year. The choices were French, Spanish, Italian and Latin.
“Italian!” my son said enthusiastically, no doubt propelled by his affections for Parmesan Reggiano, our former and very lively au pair from Rome and the descriptions of Venice in The Thief Lord. “Great!” I said, and considered the case closed. And then I started hearing from other parents.
“My son wanted to do French, but I vetoed that,” said one. “Spanish is way more practical. More useful for the future.”
“I don’t know what to do,” said another. “My daughter wants to take Latin!”
That’s a problem? A daughter who wants to take Latin?
My friend’s husband continued, proving that parents can make anything into a problem, “And wait until you hear why she wants to take Latin — to improve her SAT scores!”
And so, being the impressionable mother that I am, I started thinking about my son’s choice of Italian. Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world, after Mandarin. Italy is kind of small. I work at the UN and often wish my French were better…..
And then I remembered just whom I was talking to when I talked to myself this way.
When I was 16, on little more than a whim, and a desire to do something my older sisters hadn’t done, I started studying Russian. This was completely impractical. It was during the Soviet era, when the choices for Russian speakers were limited to academia or the CIA, neither of which interested me. A lot of people asked why I wanted to take Russian, but my “why not?” answer was deemed perfectly reasonable, at least by my parents. Russian language led me to Russian literature and history, a Russian Studies major in college, and later on a ticket to Moscow. I had amazing travels and experiences and then, lo and behold, the Evil Empire crumbled and Russia became not only an obscure destination but a place I could live and work and have even more incredible experiences and encounters with people who changed my life.
Thinking about this, I realized there was no way I was going to dissuade my son from taking Italian if that’s what truly interests and excites him. But it did make me remember one other thing: my Russian teacher was an amazingly gifted and dedicated teacher. I talked it over with my son and we decided that before he commits to a language we need to do a little reconnaissance and find out who are the teachers most likely to not only teach him to conjugate verbs in another language but also to show him a whole new world.
Oh, and my friends decided to let their daughter take Latin — in exchange for her promise that she will eventually also learn a language that people still speak.