So back to the issue of how I couldn’t talk about anything in French. That wasn’t really it. As it happened, I still remembered how to say all the words for extended family – stepmother and nephew and granddaughter. I also knew a lot of adjectives, especially for describing people, as well as classroom vocabulary – table, chair, pencil, chalk. Which would be useful, you know, if I found myself giving an autobiographical presentation to a classroom of French kids, but was less helpful in some other contexts. Contrast this with the Foreign Service Institute language courses, designed for adults who actually plan to be living or working abroad: the French course jumps right into dealing with real-life situations (Chapter 2 – At a hotel; Chapter 3 – At the train station).
It’s not that the vocabulary I learned was useless – obviously as a language beginner, any words are better than none. And I could see how it might be hard to interest 12-year-olds in making a hotel reservation. But I think it’s important to be thoughtful about why we are studying something, and what we hope to be able to do with the information we learn.