Face the Facts: Language Classes are Underrated

LanguageHow many stories have you heard of people taking language classes for three or four years and still not having a handle on the language in question? Or is it the case that the person has taken three years and have all but forgotten everything the have learn?

Too many times I have heard the allegory of the faulty language class. Usually it flows something similar to this:

Jane is interested in learning Spanish, so she decides to take a year long language class in high school each year for her entire four-year high school career. After the fourth year, she feels she can read and write it decently, but lacks the vocabulary and knowledge to write an artistic piece as she can in her native tongue. Her speaking ability is shoddy, with broken sentences and long pauses. Now, ten years later, she only remembers a few phrases and some of the basic grammar structures.

And the common verdict of this story: language classes do not provide and enhance the background nor the skills that are needed to communicate in the target language. My assertion, this is a fallacy.

The average language class does lack in many aspects, but does not alter it as useless as you may think. Language classes help to lay a foundation and serve as an introduction to the language. The time that you spend in the classroom can be used to ask questions, practice formulating sentences, and learn to work around words that you do not know with other phrases. But there are two key points that must sink in before one can make the most of their classroom opportunities: (1) there is no such thing as simply “picking up” a language and (2) languages are an art; not an exact science.

I took the full four years of high school Spanish before I graduated, even though the school required a minimum of two years of the same language. I even petitioned my Spanish department to allow me to skip the designated fourth year class and instead attend the fifth/sixth year. What does that have to do with anything? I have only one word: initiative. Language learning does not just happen. It takes a high degree of effort to improve and enhance lingual skills.

language-learning-1A lot of people, with little if not zero experience with second languages, come into class thinking that they simply have to attend and hear the language to learn it. Unfortunately, this does not work as we wish as our minds are set to filter out both individual and strings of sounds that are not present in our native tongue. This idea is often known as “databasing” where certain sounds present in the native alphabet are kept while others are filtered out. When we are little, about a year to two-years old, we begin to build our database. Sounds that we hear and try to mimic stay with us, as others begin to fade away. This, however, does not mean that we cannot later use the sounds in speech, but that we must pay careful attention, relearn them, and then assign meaning to these sounds.

This means that languages, especially those much more different than the first, require a bit of work before individual words can be picked out. However, this does not indicate that higher exposure to the languages does not improve the rate at which lingual skill is acquired. It is quite on the contrary, but the problem is that only exposure does not equal learning.

The second idea to keep in mind is that language is a communicative art. It is not exact, as there are often multiple words and phrases that have similar meanings, which allows people to work around with what vocabulary that have at their disposal. This can be a huge issue with language classes, as a lot of them try to approach languages as a science with direct formulas. The main benefit of a class is that you do receive grammar instruction which can sometimes be hard to get or confusing in an out-of-classroom setting.

Now, language classes may not be the most effective mode to learn by nor are they designed to be the only method with which to learn the target language. In class you get about an hour’s worth of instruction and exposure and then it is up to the learner to continue. Another hit on the class is that it is likely not tailored to meet the learner’s style. Some people need instruction in the language to give them a chance to take note of pronunciation and ask questions back in the language to practice construction and entertain curiosity while others may not be able to puzzle out the meaning of the instruction, but could use more grammatical teaching. Some need writing and reading practice as they have already had experience in conversation and others vice versa.

All in all, language learning consists of many components which different teaching methods are more effective at teaching. Many people frown on languages classes even though they have their advantages. These advantages are overshadowed by advertisements of learning software and the movement towards online self-teaching creating a massive underestimation of the classroom value.

language learning is messy

For more reading material on the science of language learning:

National Science Foundation: Nature or Nurture, the Science of Language Learning

For more videos on the science of language learning and tips:

Tips to Make Language Learning Easier
Linguistic Genius of Babies
Linguistic Genius of Adults
Learning Another Language (Tips)