An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by David C. '20 and Esther R. '19

Where does the language program fit into the machinery of Lakeside? We are at a school considered academically rigorous by many; in particular, our STEM programs take center stage. This emphasis makes sense at a basic level–we derive fame from proximity to technology superstars–and yet, where does this leave the rest of the Lakeside curriculum? Let us start at center stage with Bliss Hall: home to the administration; the history department; and, the spotlight of this article, the Lakeside language program.

To find the language program in all of its glory, one need only walk down to the first floor of Bliss. There, an assortment of posters commingle cheerfully. Day of the Dead projects share a wall with poetry dedicated to the Little Prince. If you should enter one of the two language offices (located at either end of the hallway), you would hear students practicing verb conjugations as teachers flit from language to language, talking about sports or what was for lunch.

Lakeside offers a robust language program. Students may choose from Spanish, French, Chinese, or Latin (with Arabic and Japanese offered through the Global Online Academy). Basic proficiency is all but required, as students must take a language class through level III, or for at least two years, excluding special cases. Languages also fulfill Lakeside’s mission of educating people who will “contribute...to a global society.” Language requirements are not exclusive to Lakeside. According to Mr. Kranwinkle, French teacher, former department head, and college counselor, “...If you look at the recommended course of study at the top 70 colleges where Lakesiders go, you will see that at least three years of language are almost always included. So, for college prep at least, it is important.” Beyond college preparation, though, what is the use of learning a language?

There’s a lot to unpack in answering this question; language classes concentrate on both mechanical and creative work. In the beginning levels, students must devote hours to memorization mastery, a skill applicable to a variety of areas. On the flip side, as a student becomes familiar with grammatical constructions and common vocabulary, fluid writing and fluent reading are expected. While Lakeside offers a thorough language curriculum, Chinese teacher Ms. Matthewson noted that the U.S. doesn’t place much emphasis on the discipline when compared with other countries. What may at first glance seem like benign neglect, though, is actually the result of two contrasting attitudes about language, according to Ms. Matthewson. First, some Americans have a superior attitude about language-learning–as English speakers, why must we learn another language? Second, others may fear failure, sensing that the area is “too hard” or “not right for them.” These two beliefs combine to discourage people from learning languages. However, Ms. Matthewson also pointed out that learning a language is perhaps the best way to answer our mission statement, because of the cultural competency and context ingrained in the pursuit.

Language teachers make a point of including cultural connections at all levels--an easy task when advanced students read authentic texts, but much harder when simply instructing students in basic vocabulary. Indeed, in introductory courses, it can be a struggle just to understand what your teacher is saying. Thus, the role of the teacher grows to encompass not only the instruction of the students, but also a performance for the students. As French teacher Ms. Brau told us, wryly: “We’re not always sure of how much we say is understood, so we have to make sure...to develop a whole bag of tricks...so they understand the vast majority of what we say...[and we] always try to show students the context.” Ms. Borreguero, a Spanish teacher and the head of the department, added that bringing in authentic materials, such as infographics, helps students “interpret real language...as you learn more of the language, you learn more about the culture.” 

With technology rapidly developing, change is occurring seemingly everywhere, especially in terms of globalization. While international communication was once a precious commodity, the rise of social media and other revolutionary tools like Google Translate have dissolved geographic and cultural distances–using online translators, communicating with someone in Afrikaans in South Africa can be as simple as yelling across the street to your neighbor in English. However, these recent developments may not be the new-inventions-of-the-wheel that they market themselves to be. Mr. Kranwinkle spoke about the significance of face-to-face communication when travelling: “People would be so kind to me because of [my knowledge of their language.]. I made an effort to learn their language, so they would help me out and show me things or just want to talk... I think that those technologies are useful in a pinch, but they do not replace the human connections that are formed when you directly speak with somebody.” Although it is undeniable that electronic translators are massive breakthroughs in today’s communication, it is also a reality that communication is more than just words strung together on an LED screen. 

Language teachers have learned to work with technology as well as push students past the easy fix technology might offer. As the erstwhile student soon finds out, Google Translate does not assure a perfect score on homework. Ms. Borreguero summed up the program’s failings: “I like to play around with my students. Google is going to translate exactly. Google is sometimes going to give you nonsense because it can’t get the gist of what the person is saying. It can’t pick up on the register...I use different language with my students and with their parents. It can’t think or interact. The tone of voice and register, there is a lot more to communication than translating word to word. These are useful tools, but to use them correctly, you have to know what is appropriate.” At the same time, language classes have been some of the quickest to adapt to the changing landscape of education technology--who hasn’t had the pleasure to play a fast-paced language Kahoot? Ms. Brau shared that the connections created through the web have given students a “window into the culture” of the country they’re learning about. Recalling her own days of transcribing English song lyrics, Ms. Brau concluded that technology on the whole has been helpful for language acquisition.

Along with introducing new forms of learning to the classroom, today’s technology has brought to attention a type of quasi-language: computer coding. Although Python and Java fall under the umbrella of “language,” both lack the human facet of language-learning; concatenated lines of code may bring great power, while not teaching anything about cultural empathy. As Mr. Kranwinkle opined, “While I do believe that coding is a valuable skill, I don’t think that coding is going to make you smile when you make a connection with another person in the same way as when you are speaking Chinese and both you and the person in front of you will smile.” Although computer coding may a useful skill for a specialized group of people, each language taught at Lakeside is spoken by millions of people across the globe, with the exception of Latin (whose historical and literary significance still loom large in our current world). 

Another facet of language that computer coding lacks is culture. While a line of code can communicate an idea with the same, if not more, precision as a sentence in French, a line of code will not express anything but its literal meaning; however, in a few words, French can give context and life to a conversation. For example, by using the informal pronoun tu instead of vous a listener can immediately recognize that the two speakers must be very comfortable with each other, which can help explain the reasoning behind things said further into the conversation. Ms. Borreguero utilized a specific analogy when referring to the computer coding language phenomenon: “Language is like an iceberg and has culture as a key aspect of it. Computers can’t get culture. It is a language without values and beliefs: it is only the top level of the iceberg.”

New developments in Lakeside’s language curriculum confirm that the program continues to grow and gain strength. This year, a Spanish IV/V class traveled to Colombia on GSL during the school year, while a Spanish III summer school class will go to Costa Rica; next school year, a French IV/V class will visit French Polynesia. (Mixed-level classes like these ones mandate a rotating curriculum.) Ms. Brau explained that GSL highlighted the most important aspect of the language program, that of communication: “It doesn’t have to be GSL, any experience in a country...that’s the only way ultimately to become completely proficient and to see what you can do and how much you’ve learned...we [teachers in the department] want [students to have] more contact with native speakers.” Ms. Borreguero concurred, saying that department wishes for every third-year student to take a GSL trip with a language-based element. Even though the rigors of Lakeside’s language curriculum create an immersive environment within the classroom, GSL adds a layer of cultural depth that is unable to be recreated without the actual people. 

Just as language itself is felt in the prosaic rhythms of life as well as in the staggering heights of literature, the language department opens up larger worlds to students, simultaneously offering a tight knit community. Although teachers are often busy doing prep work or meeting with students, from personal experience, they are always welcoming and kind to the stray student looking for a place to work (or simply a respite from the library’s rambunctiousness). They’ll even include said student in a conversation. Communication, community, and conversation: these are the principles of a program integral to our school’s ethos. Part of our education should take into account the new skills necessary in order to navigate the changing waters of technology. At the same time, the humanist ideas behind the language department turn us into global citizens by broadening our cultural understanding and exposing us to different contexts. And so we ask: What is the importance of specialized skills, without a broader vision and knowledge of the world?