Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language in school?
If so, you'd probably agree that learning a language in school doesn't usually work out.
Even if it worked for you, you likely have some friends, family members, or former classmates who took language classes for several years, only to come out of the process having minimal ability to speak the language.
Why does this happen? Why, when knowing another language is an increasingly important part of modern life, has everyone seemed to tacitly accept that schools rarely produce capable foreign language speakers?
And better yet, how can we make it better? How can we make the process of learning a language in a classroom smoother and more efficient, so that every student has a chance to obtain functional language skills?
These are big questions, and it will be impossible to answer them conclusively here, in this short article.
However, I'd like to analyze the problem from 3 main angles, and propose some ideas that I believe can help move language education forward, toward a brighter future.
Specifically, we'll take a look at:
The Student's Perspective
Let's start from the perspective of the student.
The traditional model of the classroom places the student in a passive, subservient role. If the teacher is the "sun" in this proverbial solar system, then the students are most certainly meant to be planets stuck in her orbit, accepting the "light" of her knowledge without question.
Despite the relatively recent advent of alternative, learner-centered methods, this teacher-centered method is still the one that predominates around the globe. If you're reading this article, it goes without question that most (if not all) language classes you've taken have been structured this way.
There's a problem with teacher-centered language education, though. The kind of problem that Galileo Galilei saw the answer to almost 400 years ago when he said:
“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”
Let's explore this a bit further:
Language Learning is the Student's Responsibility
If you're a student, then this is what you must realize and accept: that you are the person who bears sole responsibility for your language learning success.
Yes, you. You and no one else—not even your teacher or tutor.
Why do you bear this responsibility?
Because language learning is a skill. Even if you have outside help, it is your job to absorb the language, experiment with the language, make mistakes, get feedback, and try it all over again.
And this is something that you'll have to do infinitely many times over the arc of your language learning journey.
And here's the thing about that journey: very few of the thousands of hours you spend learning and using a language will ever take place in a classroom, or in front of a friendly tutor. Instead, you'll spend most of them at home, learning on your own, or out in the world with native speakers, practicing, using, and living the language.
My Experiences with English and French
I remember when I came to this realization, and discovered I was the one who held the reins of my language learning success.
I had been learning English and French in school for years, and had found little success with either one.
Back then I was 12 years old, and never found anything taught in my English class to be particularly enjoyable. Even when I learned at home, I found it difficult to make progress while studying dry textbooks.
Then, one day, my parents decided to hire a tutor to come to my home and work with me one-on-one.
This tutor didn't teach me English. Not in the traditional sense. Rather, she showed me all of the interesting things I could explore through the medium of English, and encouraged me to dive into them to my heart's content.
With my tutor's guidance, I dove into all manner of English-language books, movies, magazines, and more. I then became more interested in the language, and more confident in my skills, and her feedback helped me get even better.
My story with French was a similar one, with a few notable differences.
Like English, French was a language I had studied for several years, with unremarkable results. Unlike English, though, I had no French tutor to show me interesting French movies or books.
One day, however, I was channel surfing at home and happened upon France 2, one of France's national TV channels.
As an Italian myself, I was a bit surprised at this, but even more shocking was the fact that this channel constantly showed French movies and TV shows, all subtitled in French!
Suddenly, I had found the interesting content I had never had access to in French class. It wasn't long before I spent hours upon hours every night watching and dissecting everything I heard and saw in French. And soon after that, my skills in French started to skyrocket, just as they did in English!
For both of these stories, the common thread is that my language skills only ever grew when I took control of the situation—when I read French books (affiliate), practiced quoting American movies, and searched for and learned any interesting vocabulary and phrases I found in each.
In other words, I learned when I was having fun, and learning exactly what I wanted to learn.
If you're a student in a language class, here's my recommendation: if you really want to learn this language, then spend 80% of your learning time (or 4x your class time) exploring the language on your own. Use your classroom time as a "side dish" to your learning, rather than the "main course".
So take initiative and watch movies, read books (affiliate), and binge-watch TV shows and YouTube videos, all in your target language. If you do that, and stay curious, your skills will improve massively.
And when the time comes to have a conversation with your teacher or tutor, take charge there too, if you can. This is not always possible with a classroom teacher, but with a tutor, you'll usually have the ability to choose the topic of conversation, or even the types of activities you do together.
If you have this flexibility, then make sure you use it to practice your language skills using the topics and contexts that most interest you.
And if you want to talk about something cool, but you don't know the word for it, then ask! Collect the vocabulary and phrases that mean something to you, and learning will come naturally.
The Teacher's Perspective
Okay, now let's take a look at things from the point of view of the teacher.
Remember the "teacher-centered approach" from the last section? That just won't do anymore.
Because every student is different. What inspires and drives one student to learn will not be what inspires and drives another.
This is what I've found in my ten years working as a language coach. Though each student comes to me for assistance in learning a language, each one has different goals, dreams, desires, and motivations.
If I tried to teach using a rigid structure, and lead students according to the way I think they should learn, I would get nowhere. Maybe a few would succeed, but most would likely give up.
So I never tell people how they should learn, or even what they should learn.
I use a different strategy, instead:
What I do (and what I recommend you do, too) is sit down and listen attentively.
As a teacher or tutor, it's easy to feel like you're the expert, and you "know better" than your students do.
But as I said before, language learning is a journey that students must explore themselves, through their own likes, dislikes, and interests.
Though you, as a teacher, may be considered an expert on the language you teach, you most certainly are not an expert on the internal mind of any particular student; you cannot assume you know what inspires and motivates them better than they do.
So you need to listen. A lot. Especially after asking questions.
Ask questions about learning style, hobbies, topics of interest, family life, work, cultural background. Pretty much anything goes, so long as the answers you get help you connect the student more deeply with the language you're learning.
Ask and listen. Ask and listen. Again and again.
The more you listen and learn about your student, the better, smoother, and more rewarding your common learning path will get.
The knowledge you gain from listening will also help you follow my next recommendation, which is to be flexible.
I mentioned earlier that being rigid in my teaching methods would never have gotten me far in my coaching business.
Sure, I teach students certain learning methods just like you might teach specific classes, or tutor using specific lessons, but I always make sure that those methods bend to the needs of the student, and not the other way around.
This bending, this flexibility is only possible because I listen to my students, and I learn what they're all about.
When I know my students, and remain attentive to their needs, I can trim, adjust, and tweak my method to them. I can add things that will work for them, and subtract things that will not.
In the end, I am able to transform the methods I teach so that they fit the student like a tailored suit, rather than baggy, off-the-rack pajamas.
You can do this, too. When you listen to your students, use what you learn to make your classes, lessons, and methods more adaptable to their needs and desires. Don't be afraid to shake things up, if it means creating a more engaging, more enjoyable learning experience for the ones you teach.
The Student-Teacher Dynamic
If you've read this far, you might think that, since I've criticized the traditional, teacher-based model of learning, that I automatically advocate for the alternative, student-centered approach.
This isn't quite true. If the teacher-centered model suggests that the teacher is active and the student is passive, then the student-centered approach suggests the opposite: that the student is active and the teacher is passive.
In truth, I don't believe either the student or the teacher should be passive; instead, they should both be active, lively participants in the learning process.
Back to our solar system metaphor from earlier, it's not necessary for there to be only one sun, which the planets all revolve around.
Reality tells us that there is, in fact, a better model to suit our new metaphor: a binary star system, wherein two stars orbit a common center.
This is how it should be in language learning. In the classroom, the teacher and student both have "light" and "warmth" to bring, in terms of their knowledge, identities, and experiences.
So students, converse with your teachers. Teachers, converse with your students. Each of you must ask questions of the other, listen, and give feedback so that together, you can find ways to make learning more enjoyable, more efficient, and more transformative for you both.
For a long time, language education has been largely out of balance. Teachers push rigid, structured methods on to students, while disinterested students give up their agency, believing they have no say in what or how they learn.
Years of independent language learning and language coaching have taught me that for balance to be restored in the classroom, both teacher and student must take an active role, albeit in different ways.
Students must realize that they are the ultimate owners of their language skills. Whether or not they succeed has little to do with their teachers or tutors, and more to do with how often they seek to engage with the target language and culture on their own terms. When the time comes to use their target languages actively, they must speak up and direct the conversation, when they can.
Teachers, on the other hand, must realize that learning is never one-size-fits-all. Each student is different in different ways, and it is through knowing these differences that the teacher can design a suitable, flexible learning experience for each individual learner. This requires a deep knowledge of the student that can only come from conversing with the student, and listening attentively to what they say.
If, in this way, students and teachers can both become active, engaged participants in the learning process, then we might one day be able to flip the script and discuss how rare it is that someone doesn't graduate school knowing a foreign language, rather than the opposite situation we're living through today.