When Dayton, Ohio student Talia W. began learning French, it was love at first syllable. When she was 14, her parents wanted her to start taking Spanish but she knew she wanted to study French. “I fought tooth and nail to get into my very first French class, and I was never going to let it go with my parents.” So, when her favorite French teacher asked her to go on a trip to France, the only logical thing to do was jump at the chance and find a way to go.
At age 16, Talia, along with her classmates, left the country for the very first time. While there, she was surprised to see how many English speakers were in France. She began to reflect on how different language learning was in other parts of the world especially when compared to her home, where very few spoke another language fluently. This observation led her to return home and put together her thoughts into a project that further examined this notion.
Unlike Talia’s classmates, she decided to take five years of French by the time she was 18, and even began taking Spanish courses: “I recognized that my enjoyment of French in high school was kind of weird. Most of my friends eventually stopped taking the classes.” After returning from France, she began to ask herself why her fellow students didn’t continue on with their foreign language courses. While in France, she observed that because tourism is such a large part of the economy, many residents are fluent in English in order to engage with the influx of English speakers coming to visit. In contrast, the majority of her classmates could not hold a conversation in another language.
She began to piece together that the U.S. school system could learn a thing or two from France. This observation prompted Talia to put together a research project on weShare—an online learning platform where students can explore topics about what they learned on their EF trip. Her project examined language learning in the U.S. and how it could be improved if we took learnings from France and other countries around the world. Through her research, Talia found that international students usually start learning a second language in elementary school, when students are at a cognitive level to most effectively learn a language. In comparison, students in the U.S. usually do not start language learning until late middle school or early high school, when it’s much more difficult to learn a language.
One of Talia’s most memorable conversations in France occurred in a small southern town. Unlike the other areas she had visited, there were not many English speakers. Her and her classmates were put into situations where they had to practice their French to communicate with locals. At one point, Talia encountered a shopkeeper who made an insightful remark on why she values Americans making an effort to speak her native language. “The woman told me she loved when Americans attempted to learn French because her culture is something she holds very dear to her. She wants to share it with others because it’s something she loves and something she grew up with.” Talia had also observed how she felt when trying to engage with locals in French: “If you can communicate with them in the language that they are speaking, it’s so much more meaningful. In contrast, if you ask them to translate, they are never speaking from their hearts.”
Talia was selected to present her language learning project at the American Council on Teacher Foreign Languages in San Diego. “It was a crazy fifteen minutes of my life where it was a mixture of total fear and incredible empowerment. I was able to share my thoughts on traveling and the importance of foreign language learning.” Talia noted her French teacher received letters from teachers across the country commending Talia’s speech as insightful and encouraging her to have a future in education.
In addition to falling in love with France, Talia found a second love in California. She is now attending her sophomore year at the University of Southern California, where she is tackling an interdisciplinary major—philosophy, politics, and law—as well as a second major in French and a minor in Arabic.