The vocabulary we learn in school is not necessarily what is used in the practical, modern world. For instance, upon landing in the Madrid airport, I failed to find a sign anywhere labeled, “cuarto de baño.” Instead, I found the universal womanly outline indicating bathroom (or “toilet,” if you are British—even English speakers cannot seem to agree on the same word for this location) beside the word “aseos,” so I quickly imprinted this term in my memory. Later, I learned that the word “aseo” is not even the correct country-wide word for bathroom; in Valencia you might say “lavábamos,” and in Barcelona, the café workers in El Parque Güel didn’t understand why I was staggering around with my legs crossed until someone finally said the word “baño.” A “calle” in Madrid is a “carrer” in Barcelona, and “plaza” turns into “placa” when you go from one city to the other, as well. Luckily, mentally translating these words this just became common sense after reading so many maps.
Granted, I would never expect a high school Spanish class to teach every dialect of every city, much less every country of the world that speaks Spanish. That would be impractical, never mind impossible. However, I think that high school Spanish should better equip its students with vocabulary that will prove useful to them when they travel rather than just teaching them lists of random vocabulary words. After all, more students in a foreign language class are likely to travel to foreign countries that speak the language they studied than are likely to pursue the language formally (and would therefore need to amass as many nouns and verbs as possible). For instance, not once on my entire trip did I need to name an animal or describe the items in a classroom. I would, however, have given a great deal to know the terms for “left, right, behind, beyond, near, under, beside, etc.” Map reading and describing locations would be particularly useful, as well as more emphasis spent on the actual artificial practice of ordering foreign (i.e. unrecognizable) food in a restaurant and trying to buy tickets in a train or airplane station. If someone had told me that the train was actually a more practical means of transportation in Spain, I might have paid more attention to that unit when we studied it and consequently had an easier time navigating the stations in Madrid, Segovia, and Valencia.
Furthermore, American high school Spanish teachers might want to take a quick trip to Spain just to collect some real menus before teaching their food units, because not too many of the food terms I remember learning showed up on those menus. It’s nice to know that “lechuga” means lettuce and “carne” means meat, but it’s much more important to me to know that if I am ordering “paella con pollo y conejo,” I am going to get a dish containing chicken and rabbit meat.