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.