First, it’s a matter of too little too late. Even today, it’s most often not offered until high school – and then it’s a requirement.
Second, it’s how it’s taught. This is how my daughter’s Spanish teachers taught vocabulary: they gave the kids a list on Monday, the homework was to copy that list over three times and then they gave a quiz on them on Friday. After doing her required two years of this, my daughter doesn’t speak a word of Spanish and probably has an aversion to overcome if she does ever want to learn.
It’s been this way forever. Julia Child, in her memoir, My Life in France, remembers, when she first arrived in that country, after years of French instruction in an American school, she could conjugate verbs, but couldn’t actually talk with anyone. She learned, of course, through immersion.
A woman I know, who is, as an adult, learning Spanish, believes language should be taught the way infants acquire it. First, you try to understand what people are saying and, babbling, try to respond. Slowly, with lots of positive encouragement, you refine that. Only much later, if you need to at all, would you learn to write.
What about immersion trips, big and small, even just to a meal at a local restaurant where the staff would only speak the language to the kids? What about watching movies and TV shows in the language? Or pairing up with a class of native speakers learning English anywhere in the world and having the kids talk to each other via Skype?
If it’s going to be required, let’s require that it actually be taught.