Por Favor, Can’t We Do Language Learning Better?

30 Jan

Let me start this post by saying I am a lover of languages; I have studied languages through high school and university,  and I have taught high school Spanish and ELL. Because I love language learning, I can’t really understand how we teach it in most American schools all over the world: in an ineffective, uninspiring, and, ultimately, pointless way.

Most American schools require students to take a minimum of two years of a foreign language because most American colleges require this for admission. These two years consist of basic grammar and vocabulary in the first year, building up each year to more sophisticated grammar and vocabulary, until, in the third year (if students reach it) and beyond, students are proficient enough to read basic texts and, if they stick it out, more sophisticated texts.

This is a soul-crushing way to teach language. If a student isn’t good at memorization, she will never have much chance to advance in the average school, where she might have a maximum of four hours of language instruction a week, if she’s lucky. If she is good at memorization, it’s still a year or two before she can have even a basic conversation; worse, I’ve known plenty of students in Spanish III or AP French that cannot have a basic (and I mean basic) conversation, though they can correctly conjugate “to shave” in the pluperfect third person singular.

Anyone who has traveled (or picked up some kitchen Spanish) will tell you that language is truly learned, and learned most enjoyably, through exposure to it, not by flipping through flashcards.

Spanish teachers regularly deal with students who cannot memorize vocabulary and grammar with ease, and these students get further and further behind and more and more frustrated with each semester of language study, where progression depends on the ability to master the material. And it’s not that Spanish teachers are gluttons for grammar and vocab; it’s that the tests at the top, the AP, IB, and SAT IIs with which the higher language levels culminate, are still heavily grammar driven. If students are to be ready for those tests in four or five years, there is little way around the grammar and vocab issue. Students must acquire a massive amount of grammar and vocab in order to do well on those tests; and doing well on those tests is important to administrators, parents, and college counselors alike.

But is this what language learning is really about?

In our hearts, we know it’s not.

Language, like much of English/Language Arts, is about communication. I definitely did not learn Spanish in order to correctly conjugate “to shave” in the pluperfect. I learned it so I could travel and meet people (like my husband, who is Spanish), so a new world of people, foods, experiences, and cultures opened to me.

But here’s the rub: I got all the way up to AP level Spanish in high school and minored in Spanish in college. I had an incredibly firm grasp on grammar and vocab (I could conjugate the verb “to shave” in the pluperfect) and felt very confident in my Spanish speaking abilities when I flew to Madrid, Spain, my senior year in college for a semester abroad. But then I arrived in Madrid and something happened that knocked the wind out of me: I could not understand a word anybody said. In all those years of studying Spanish, eight years or more total, no teachers had ever spoken to me as quickly or as colloquially as real-life people in Spain did. It was devastating, and it took me a full three months (in a home-stay, taking classes all day each day) to begin to understand and engage in basic conversations with people like the shopkeeper, my host mother, and the bus driver without my lack of understanding getting in the way. This after eight years of dedicated study!

I propose that schools do something a little radical, based on the experience of so many of us that have truly learned a second language by traveling and living in other countries: the first two years of any student’s high-school language study should focus solely on conversation, culture, and food. That’s it. No grammar, no memorization, no writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that schools make those two years pass/fail courses and with little or no homework to really make language study as inviting as possible.

Imagine an introductory two-year language course in which students are completely immersed in only the most engaging aspects of language study: its films and pop culture, its slang, its cuisine, music, and tourism. Teachers would conduct class not as grammarians but as cultural ambassadors, emphasizing basic conversation in the target language through immersion. I took one semester of college French this way, and it was fun and exciting — I still remember many basic phrases from that brief course. Mostly, though, I remember the great films, songs, and funny French advertisements we studied, because they made me much more curious about the culture and instilled in me the desire to travel to France for the first time (which I did while studying in Spain).

If the first two years of high-school language study focused on what we all most love about languages — its ability to provide an entree into a new culture, including its people, arts, and cuisine — I’m certain that we’d see a soaring interest in language study. There would be little pressure on these first-years teachers to cover a certain amount of material, because the goal would be exposure and engagement; it would be about an introduction and invitation to culture, not a marching through the required content. In essence, it would be like a mini travel abroad experience, a chance to sample what a deeper study of French, Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic might offer students.

After the first two years, students could then spend the optional following years focused on intensive grammar, writing, and vocabulary acquisition. Students who continued with languages after the requisite two years would do so because they had an interest in hunkering down to learn the grammar and vocab that upper levels required. Students who didn’t want to commit to that kind of rote memorization and intensive study would be done, but not without having a real exposure to language in a way that may intrigue them in the future, perhaps inspiring them to study further in university or try a semester abroad. Currently, too many students averse to grammar and vocabulary learning seem driven away from languages after their first two years because there is nothing fun about grammar and vocabulary learning in a vaccuum. We are motivated to memorize words for our language classes because we are interested in knowing how to use them, not because we love memorizing words.

Lower-level language classes should be inviting, not boring. They should be about opening doors, not rote memorization (that can come in the later years, when students have a deeper commitment). They should be about communication and culture, not about the pluperfect and the subjunctive. In short, if we want to create student interest in continuing language studies and becoming proficient speakers of other languages, we should create language courses that are interesting.

Critics might argue that this wouldn’t produce proficient enough speakers, but I disagree. First of all, is our current method of language teaching really producing proficient speakers? Secondly, for students who already have a working knowledge of these languages, there could be a  bypass of the “cultural years” straight to the intensive grammar and skills acquisition. Lastly, I think we’d have many more students who are driven to learn the language after two years of immersion in conversation and cultural studies. I’d be willing to bet you a pitcher of sangria that the percentage of students who stick with the language after the minimim requirement would increase, because they would no longer see it as just a requirement; many more would see it as something meaningful, practical, and interesting. And I’d also bet you some dim sum and cafe au lait that those IB, AP, and SAT II scores would rise if we made an honest effort to teach language in the most exciting, relevant way from day one.

¿Qué opinas?

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2 Responses to “Por Favor, Can’t We Do Language Learning Better?”

  1. Inés February 12, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    Amen sister!!!!!!!!! Oh, I so understand what you mean! I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with you… get ready 🙂

    This is my story and it is based on real events!

    I started learning English when I was in 5th grade. I remember my first lesson: a teacher and a white board where it said- To be verb: I am, You are, He/she is, we are, you are, they are. I was so excited!!! Yes, I was going to learn English… finally! Well, that enthusiasm didn’t last at all. OMG, how boring it was! HOW DISAPPOINTING!!!!!! Memorize these phrasal verbs, fill in the blanks… what the heck? It didn’t make sense. I was a good student but I could not get it. I just wanted to quit, but… it was mandatory!!!!!! NOOOOO! It was completely pointless. I so hated English. I didn’t even want to listen to English music anymore (I kid you NOT!)and I remember telling my mom I didn’t understand why they were making us learn English when I was never going to use it because my life was in Spain and I was not planning to move anywhere else in the world. I was probably 14 sooooo wrong!! 🙂

    I made it all the way to high school. I was a freshman and my school offered French as an elective. If you wanted to take French you even had to stay an extra hour at school… Are you kidding me? Of course I didn’t take it!!!! What in the world?? Something I will ever regret 😦

    I was a teenager and I was all into boys, being cool and going out. Languages were none of my priorities. I had a good English teacher the last two years of high school. She tried hard to get us into the American culture (she was Spanish, but had lived in the States forever!) and guess what… MADE US TALK!!! Oh nooooo! I did not want to do it, but as I reflect on that, I am soooo thankful she was such a great teacher, I know I learned a lot with her. La Porky was her nickname, poor lady! It was just hard to try to sound like her without looking bad. She wants us to learn to pronounce English but… Cool high schoolers didn’t fake the English accent, people!!! That was just for nerds and brownnosers… No, I still don’t like high schoolers after being one of them!!

    I hit College and… Thank you Lord! There was no mandatory English there for me!!!!!!! Yay! I so forgot about it. I remember how my sister kept taking English classes in The British Council and how she wasted her money and worked her butt off to get Cambridge certificates… (currently her English just sucks…) I just couldn’t care less… My parents tried to make me understand, but I was just stubborn! I did NOT want to keep on studing that crap… So I didn’t!

    I attended college for 3 years, worked for a year after that, went back to college for other 2 years and when I was in my 6th year of college something very weird started happenning to me… I started feeling curious about the world around! I wanted to go abroad for a semester… but… oops! After nearly 7 years, I was sure I could not speak any English, where could I go? Shoot. I so wanted to go somewhere, but I knew I could not speak English. I had had a total of 8 unsuccessful years of trying to learn it, so I was so sure I would never learn it. I was not even interested in trying that again. It’s like when I see people playing piano or violin and I wish I could do it, but I know I can’t and I won’t… same feeling with English for me at that time.

    I went talk to the advisor and he told me I could go to Italy or Portugal. I didn’t need English over there. Portugal sounded good since my family is from Galicia, I can speak gallego and I knew portuguese was similar. I was happy with the idea! Cool!

    And there I went!!! I ended up in such a small and rural but very nice town in South Portugal. They provided the Erasmus students with a room in a very nice dorm on campus. But we had to share the room with another Erasmus student. Well, I was open minded and I didn’t care. When I got there I realized of something… all the Erasmus students didn’t speak any Portuguese nor Spanish so guess what? Yes, I had to use my more than rusty English to communicate with them! My roommate Kate was British and the other girls were Dutch, Belgian, and Bulgarian!!!!

    My English came back to me, but this time I just loved it! I finally saw the point!!!!! I enjoyed it soooo much and I learned more in those 4 months in Portugal than in 8 years in school. It was just amazing to be able to carry a conversation. Suddenly I could understand the lyrics of the songs and people talking on TV! I learned English and Portuguese, but moreover, I learned to love languages and cultures! I thank God for putting me in that situation… What a gift! That experience changed my life forever!

    After that, I never stopped studing English. But it made sense then, and I loved it! I spent lots of money and time, but I was happy about it. I took English and Portuguese classes out of my pocket being a poor student in Spain… But I knew it was worth it. And in one of those attemps of keep improving my English skills I found the best teacher ever…. YOU!!!! 🙂 Thanks for making your classes so meaningful and fun, and for teaching me the real stuff, the things that really matter!!!! I still remember lots of your tips!

    I have been leaving in the States for 6 years now, and I still learn something new on daily basis. I love it. I do many mistakes (as I am sure you noticed while reading my English) and I have an accent (wish I did not!), but that is not a big deal. If I don’t understand something, I ask, and if I say something wrong, my close friends know they can correct me and I really appreciate it!

    I am an ESL teacher for beginners (hard to believe!!). Most of them are hispanic, adults. They just love the way I teach because I’ve been there!!! And I am not going to do the same my teachers did to me. It’s all about having fun and talking, and making it meaningful. They even call my cell phone whenever they need it to ask me how to say something to their bosses, neighbors, etc. Sometimes they want me to talk straight to them and I refuse to do it, they gotta try it!!!! 🙂 Real communication works. Inmersion works. Fun works. Grammar, lists of verbs and vocabulary don’t. You will eventually need those, that’s true. But as you said, those need to come later.

    I am glad I took English for 8 years so I can spell and write… but when it comes to grammar, don’t ask me. I am not sure I could fill the blanks now and pass my high school tests. I just say what I think is right. Well, actually I don’t think about it anymore. I just talk. Period. I have learned from the people around me (scary when you live in East Texas, y’all!!!! lol) and it works great… I love English, and because of it, I want to keep learning more languages. I went from being that girl refusing to learn a pointless language to not wanting to live in a Spanish speaking country because it is just not fun, not challenging enough!!!!

    I didn’t mean to write this looooooong reply to your post, sorry, but I guess I just did. So here you have a testimony of somebody who truly loves languages after all. Lucky me. Most of my high school mates can’t say the same. They all wish they could speak English as I do… ¡Qué suerte tienes! ¡Yo también me iría de España, pero es que no sé inglés… qué envidia me das! It is just so sad.

    The way of teaching languages is so screwed up, and I want to believe that is just a matter of time… eventually somebody with a experience similar to yours and mine and enough power will change it all!!!! :)))) Praying for that day to come soon!

  2. Damn Language May 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Mathematics and linguistics are my handicap. I’m really wanting to do a post grad degree in art history so I just HAVE to learn Italian. I’ve just started the second course of conversational Italian and am already feeling all those inadequate states of mind that come on with some thing you know does not come at all naturally. But I have a really, really good solution. Why can’t we get away from learning ‘A’ language as an end in itself in Uni or evening courses and instead have ‘Art history’ Italian or ‘alternative medicine’ Chinese etc..etc.. language is just the verbal tool of a given society and culture, so why can’t we treat it as such.

    Does anyone know of language courses that are tailored in this way ? And I don’t mean the oh so ‘not’ cool ones that think their hot because they cover pop culture, i.e. the text book is set in a club,.. yawn….

    I am also really sick to death of learning how Horace walks down the road in his toga to give a robotic ‘hello’ to his friends pet dog aka newby Latin, or how I can order pasta in flippen Milano…!! GET IT PEOPLE THAT IS NO MORE EXITING THAN AMO AMAS AMANT,.. ie learning grammar whatever, hm..

    I don’t give a toss I want the poetry of a culture at some level ASAP… the less cultured amongst us could even have European languages taught around soccer. Hell everyone would pick it up fast if languages were tailored around specific interests and disciplines rather than as mind numbing autonomous abstract fluff!

    I say… REPEAT AFTER ME ‘to hell with languages may they all burn!’ lets
    teach subjects that use the languages as a means of furthering our interests in ‘them’ and not the language. …And as an added bonus we might even like ‘the’ language..

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