Influencing factors of students who take a language, focusing on exposure, interest, and peer pressure

From AP exams to course selections, it’s becoming clear that the competitive environment students face in school is getting worse by the second. For some, it might be a time to pave their career pathways, while others want to relish the complete high school experience. However, rather than taking courses they want, most students end up taking them to fulfill credit requirements and criteria. 

A prominent area where this psychology applies is world languages. Whether it be Japanese, Spanish, or French, students have many influencing factors that determine what language they take. Most universities require taking at least two world language classes, reflected in students’ course choices. MVHS freshman Tashvi Bansal is a part of the Spanish Honors Society and said she is intrigued by the diverse Spanish culture.

“I am interested in Spanish because many people speak [it] in America, and I wanted to learn about the culture. I’ve applied this interest to the [real world] and joined the Spanish honors society,” Bansal said. “The club has provided me with plenty of volunteering opportunities and allowed me to explore the depths of Spanish culture. [Additionally, a lot] of people from the US speak Spanish, so learning the language would help with communication.” 

Last year, Bansal took Spanish 1 at Kennedy Middle School and said that there were no other languages offered. This limiting factor pushed her to take Spanish and influenced her high school career. The communication factor also ended up driving her towards choosing Spanish over other languages like French. Bansal also shares her opinion on how teachers, contrary to popular opinion, did not influence her decision to take Spanish.

“I didn’t choose my language based on the teachers who taught the class,” Bansal said. “I chose Spanish because, to be honest, it was an easier path to go, and many people I know did it in 8th grade as well.” 

Although she describes her decision as “self-made” Tashvi does say that her environment affected her overall experience. Being in a community with everyone taking Spanish led her to do the same. 

“It was a mainly self-made decision,” Bansal said. “I chose my classes during the pandemic, and I was focusing mostly on my career pathways and what opportunities I could have in the future.” 

Tashvi Bansal

In regards to exposure, Bansal said that her overall experience with Spanish in her daily life affected her course choices. Living in the Bay Area, she is constantly exposed to celebrities and the media. 

“Pop culture references also drove me to choose Spanish…the media surrounding me affected what language I took,” Bansal said. 

Bansal goes on to say that she was exposed to Spanish culture as well. “I also [went] to Cabo in 4th grade and hair braiding and other cultural aspects were quite interesting to me,” Bansal said. 

Similar to Bansal, MVHS junior Arushi Pandit is currently taking Spanish 3. She describes her Spanish journey as a fascinating look into the environment and societal values of Spanish-speaking countries and the people themselves. Pandit said that her decision to take Spanish was influenced by her peers and community. 

“In middle school, the only option was to take a Spanish class,” she said. “There was a French class, but it had so few spots that there was a waitlist for it. So peer pressure kind of kicked in, and all my friends were taking Spanish, so my parents ended up pushing me along that path.” 

She said that her friends also did the same, with everyone eventually making the same choices based on what everyone else was doing. Arushi said that she is interested in the language. 

“I guess Spanish was more interesting because more people speak Spanish than French, and I wanted to understand why. I also wanted to learn about the Spanish culture and what made it so enticing for students,” Pandit said. “A lot of it had to do with communication. I can finally talk to my Gardener, directly speak far more than broken sentences and communicate much more effectively.”

Moreover, freshman Justin Lee goes on to say that he had different experiences with taking a language at MVHS. Lee had originally taken French but ultimately ended up dropping the class after a few weeks. 

“The only other option was French. I ended up dropping the class though because the teacher spoke French the entire first class.” Lee said. “I was struggling a lot and decided to step back from something I wasn’t ready for.”

Lee said that he struggled a lot with managing his homework and keeping the balance between his school and personal life. In addition to taking French, Lee was also taking two other electives, adding to his workload. Seven classes were pressurizing him a lot, eventually causing him to drop the class.

“I felt kind of overwhelmed but I’m doing okay now,” Lee said. “I decided to take ASL at De Anza College to fulfill my course requirements, and I enjoy learning it. It’s allowing me a lot of opportunities.”

French Teacher Madame Finck agrees with some of the student’s opinions. 

“I do think that parents play some role in their kid’s language decision. Parents would want them to take something useful and easy to succeed in,” Finck said. “During parent night last year for incoming freshmen, I got asked a lot of questions about whether Spanish or French was easier.” 

Finck said that peer pressure and parental obligation roles play a key factor when students choose their courses. What everyone else is doing is the main reason and motivating factor that pushes students to choose a specific language over another. 

“I imagine that the students are influenced by what their friends or siblings are saying and whether they like the subject or not…A lot of them are fascinated with French because it’s the ‘romantic language’ and the idea of Paris excites people,” Finck said. “Generally speaking, there are a lot more Spanish-speaking in the Bay Area…knowing Spanish would allow better communication. A lot of people also think it’s an easier option, and I think a lot of it is based on perception. French and Spanish have similar challenges [but] a different alphabet could be a draw for something exciting” 

According to the National Academies Press, different people make decisions when they consciously combine beliefs and experiences they value to choose a path of action. The striatum, an area of the brain dedicated to decision-making, has three sections. 

The first section manages thought organization. Another part weighs the pros and cons of the situation. The final section controls the preparation for actions that are going to be taken. The striatum is vital when it comes to students choosing their high school courses, weighing the options as they go. Without it, they would not be able to make educated choices based on values and past experiences throughout their careers.  

Frontiers Media SA says that the prefrontal cortex is an important part of the brain for executive control. It has been shown that damage to this area results in poor judgment and planning skills. Recent studies have found that while we are doing routine tasks unrelated to our problem, the frontal cortex is still engaged with it.

Ultimately, with the rise of competition in the college atmosphere, more kids are taking the languages that their peers or their parents push them to take. It is important to take note that the competitive environment not only affects their courses but also their futures.

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