Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe study one or more languages at school. However, after years of study, most of these same people cannot string together even the simplest of sentences.

How is that possible?

In this article, I’d like to explore some of the reasons why learning a foreign language in school is often difficult, boring or discouraging for most students. I will also suggest simple changes that can improve classroom language learning no matter the country, the school, or the student in question.

1. Students are Passive Participants

Let’s face it. Most students — no matter at which longitude or latitude they find themselves— are passive participants in their language classes.

These students expect their teacher to “deliver” the language, to magically transmit their knowledge and skill to them without them having to raise a finger. This is a result of the classic “teacher-centered” paradigm of learning, where the teacher is the main source of knowledge, and the students “orbit” around the teacher in an effort to obtain that knowledge.

This is a false learning paradigm that does not reflect the realities of learning in everyday life. In the world outside of school, any learning is generally a result of initiative taken by the learner. In the teacher-centered model, however, all initiative is left to the educator, who decides, among other things:

  • What to talk about
  • Which material to use
  • The learning method
  • The speed at which students learn

Keeping initiative out of students’ hands can have a disastrous impact on the way students acquire language. From within this system, students see learning as the teacher’s responsibility, and do not develop the sense of agency that is so important to successful language learning.

One way to potentially solve this problem is to teach students directly that success in learning a new language will ultimately be their own responsibility.

A teacher could communicate this to the students from the very beginning, saying something like:

Take language learning in your own hands. I am here to help, to facilitate, but you are the one who, in the end, have to make learning happen. Nobody can teach you a language. You and only you can learn a language.  

In English there is a saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”

A teacher, especially now in the Internet era, should be a leaderfacilitatormotivator, and content provider, showing the students how to “find water” even when the teacher will not be there to lead them to it.

Teaching students to take responsibility for their own language learning will require them to be active and decisive decision-makers both inside and out of the classroom.

The proactive student should:

  • Tell the teacher what they like
  • Choose material from the internet on top of the material used in class
  • Come up with ways in which they find learning efficient and enjoyable
  • Decide their own speed of learning

2. Languages are Treated as a Subject to Study, Not a Skill to Acquire

In school, knowledge-based topics like history, economics, math, and science are all studied in the same way: as a collection of facts that need to be absorbed. Since languages are taught within the same academic structure as these other courses, students fall into the trap of believing that they should be treated the same way.

However, languages are not like these other subjects, which can mostly be studied and memorized from books. To know a language is to have developed a skill.

If a student remains unaware that a language is a skill, and instead treats it like all of his other school subjects, this will have a profoundly negative impact on the decisions he makesmaterial he uses, and actions he takes along his learning path.

Let’s consider Student A and Student B.

Student A studies a language at school. She:

  • Learns grammar by using a grammar book, tries to memorize the grammar rules and applies them by doing exercises.
  • Learns lists of words from texts he was given in class  and tries to memorize them using rote repetition.

Student B studies a language on her own. She:

  • Uses the language by translating into her target language, speaking it with someone or writing and getting corrections online.
  • Downloads and reads texts from the Internet that she is highly interested in, highlights words and uses them later in texts or speeches she composes herself.
  • Uses a well-organized Spaced-Repetition System (SRS) to memorize new material.

Both students are using only a handful of simple techniques to learn their target languages. However, Student A will end up knowing more facts about the language, and Student B will develop a more natural skill in using the language.

Additionally, Student B’s methods help her learn in a way that is more compatible with the natural learning mechanisms of the brain. Student A’s methods, on the other hand, are more artificial, resulting in much less success in learning a foreign language.

3. Students Learn within a Competitive (and Uncooperative) Learning Environment

Modern school systems have been built around competition and getting good grades, while language learning ultimately is (and should be) cooperative work.

Think about the way kids learn anything outside of school. Instead of worrying about grades or assessments, they just play, interact with each other, smile, laugh, make mistakes and grow together. It is a collective as well as a personal learning experience. Within that framework, learning literally thrives.

The mental attitude towards approaching language learning has a huge impact on the way we absorb, ask for information and refine our skills.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example.

Let’s consider Student A and Student B, both in their 20’s, both Italian and learning English as a second language.

Student A loves languages, and succeeds in learning  because he is eager to willing to learn new skills.

Student B views language as a subject to be studied, and not a skill to be learned. He is in the class simply because he has to be, and because he has no personal investment in his language studies, makes average progress.

Student A thinks in a cooperative way. He is not thinking in terms of grades, he searches for active conversations with other learners by himself, and when he is tested orally, he tries to speak as much as he can, making mistakes, getting out of his comfort zone. The teacher corrects his mistakes and suggests other ways of saying what he wanted to say. He writes everything down, eager to learn more.

Student B does his homework, but he is not that eager to learn. Rather, he learns out of obligation, and finds little joy in the task. When he is tested, he stays within his comfort zone, trying to perform as best as he can. He is not growing, and he sees mistakes as punishment.

Students who learn like Student A will get more satisfaction and results from their learning than students like Student B. To “create” more students like Student A, I believe that teachers should explain that students learn for themselves, and that language learning is an experience of growth. They should inspire a collective and cooperative environment, while tests should be seen as a way to further improve and refine the student’s skill, rather than a way to punish them.

4. Students Rarely Use the Language to Communicate

You might have noticed that often, across the whole world students in high school, university or even in some language schools don’t speak their target language often enough. They often learn about the language, or learn facts about its literature and history, but don’t take time to practice their actual language skills.

The simple, number one rule in any language class should be to use the language in as many situations and scenarios as possible—through speaking, reading, writing, listening, and even playing and thinking.

Something that struck me some years ago was when I stumbled upon multiple Norwegians learning Spanish on a website. I noticed there were more than twenty students in a single room for Spanish speakers and I realized that these students were in a laboratory using computers to chat in their target language. While chatting is still not as active as speaking with someone, it is a good, encouraging, unconventional way to use the language.

Teachers should find inventive ways to push students to use their target language in any way they enjoy and like. The more they do something they enjoy, the more likely they will start doing it on a daily basis. The Internet offers amazing, endless possibilities to speak, write, play, sing, and hear a given language.

5. Students are Forced to Use Boring Learning Materials

The material you use to learn, at least in the first initial phases of language learning, plays a very important role in your eventual success. If the material is boring and inefficient, it risks impacting negatively even the most well-intentioned and eager learner.

The best learning materials are those that are both well-organized and interesting to the learner. If the material is enjoyable but poorly organized, the student will use it, but not learn much. Conversely, if the material is well-organized but uninteresting to the learner, the student will likely never bother to pick it up.

Unfortunately, many students are given textbooks they find boring at best and unpleasant at worst. To solve this problem, I believe that teachers should create material that is adapted to their unique classroom of learnersbe open to suggestions, and above all, encourage students to participate in the resource-selection process and create or find interesting learning material on their own.

6. Students Spend Little Time with the Language Outside of Class

When I learned French in high school, I couldn’t wait for the French class to come. Unfortunately, I had to do a lot of waiting regardless, since I only had French class twice per week, one hour at a time.

Most members of my class were fine with two hours of French per week, but I was not.

Instead, I spent as many of my waking hours with French as I could—all by using learning opportunities that I found outside of the classroom. And because of this, my French skills soared above those of my classmates.

Language students today have the same attitude as many of my classmates did. Since languages were subjects of “study”, and “study” was essentially “work”, they didn’t want to spend any of their free time “working” on French.

I didn’t see French that way. I saw it as a fun medium through which to explore my interests and passions, and so I spent many, many, many more hours interacting with the language, and learning from and through it. And this is exactly how native speakers learn their first languages.

Think about it. Kids learn their own native language by spending most of their time with their native language, every single day, from dusk till dawn. An amount of exposure  time which literally dwarfs the amount of time spent by students on their target language. This alone can make a huge difference in language skill.

Teachers should encourage students to learn their language on a daily basis, wherever and whenever they are. Since students will always spend most of their lives outside of class, these external learning opportunities should be the primary focus of any language student. Once that “shift” is made, in-classroom time becomes “supplementary learning time” as students can use class time to ask the teacher for help or clarification on any language-related issues they may have encountered in the outside world.

7. Students Don’t Know Why They Are Studying the Language

When you learned languages in school, do you ever remember asking yourself, “Why am I learning this language?”

There is a very high chance that you didn’t. In most schools, foreign language study is a requirement that all students must fulfill. Furthermore, language choices are limited, so students  can only explore a handful of language options.

Most students who fail at learning a foreign language in school, high school, college or university don’t really know why they have started learning a specific language in the first place. Because of this, they never end up learning the language to fluency. Simply put,  they study because they have to do it, they don’t learn because they want to.

This kind of motivation is known as extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic reasons come from outside, and they are weak. These include reasons such as: “I have heard that language X is cool to learn”, or “I want to impress my friends”. These are the kind of reasons that are going to vanish at the first obstacle, and are not powerful enough to motivate you to reach fluency.

A better, more powerful type of motivation is known as intrinsic motivation. This is the kind of motivation that comes from within, based upon reasons that are important to you personally.

Some intrinsic reasons to learn a language could be: “I want to learn because I want to understand locals better” or “because I want to live in country X” or even “because I met a girl or a guy and I want to speak and communicate at a deeper level in that language”. These kinds of reasons are more compelling, and will generally carry you past any obstacles you meet along your learning path.

To address this from an in-classroom perspective, one of the very first things teachers should do is ask students to brainstorm their intrinsic reasons for wanting to learn a foreign language. Teachers should encourage students to come up with reasons that are personally motivating, and tied to their goals, passions, and interests.

Wrap up: Learning a Foreign Language Should be Fun

There you have it.

Language learning can be a fantastic adventure, both inside and outside of school.

Despite this, however, most people who learn languages in school do not experience much success or growth in their language skills.

For the most part, this is because the learning a foreign language in school lacks a number of elements which I believe are essential to successful language learning.

These elements include, but are not limited to, enjoyment, proactivity, regularity, and motivation.

I’d also like to invite you to leave a comment below describing your own experience with language learning classes. 

Everyone’s experience is different and unique, so I’d love to hear your perspective!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • I agree with much of what you say, and it’s a relief to hear others feel the same way.

    I had an email conversation with David Marsh of ‘CLIL’ fame, over the ‘tyranny of textbooks’, and how they have a strong influence over ‘page-turner’ teaching mentality, rather than being tools within the classroom.

    In Spain, I find there is too much emphasis upon ‘immersion techniques’, when in truth it’s a fallacy to believe kids speak English anywhere but in the few hours of class each week. Spanish offers so many simple roads into English (such as the easy transposition of many cognates), I don’t understand why classes don’t use ‘cheats’ to the advantage.

    There is also a bias I find toward a vocabulary-first approach, rather than construct a framework of grammar to hang the vocabulary upon. I find it ridiculous that primary school books teach the numbers 1-20 in year one and 50-100 in year 3, when 1 to a trillion requires hardly any additional learning, just simple rules.

    In that sense, the Michel Thomas method (although there are flaws), of constructing grammar first using the native language as reference, then growing the vocabulary later invites much quicker progress. I use this method in adult academy classes and in the first year students obtained B2 level English grammar from zero. The A1 books on the other hand, barely cover introductions and simple tenses.

    Regarding boring material, again this is a text book related issue, impeded by largely static content (even when there is an online form). Better to make classrooms project-based, and assign longer term projects. I am experimenting in two schools using bi-lingual blogs/portfolios at the individual, team, class and year level. Firstly, to teach them to produce content, secondly (later), Internet, media and analysis skills. Moreover, this permits an approach to CLIL that alleviates some of the problems (confusion) that can occur mixing languages in different subjects. I have witnessed children learn English words such as ‘cacoon’ before they have been taught ‘capullo’ in Spanish.

    Ultimately, I think there is a confusion about the importance of teaching over learning. Children are machine learners, and teaching is given too great an emphasis, in my opinion. The best teachers I work with are kids teaching other kids because they have a much better interface than I do as an adult. So I tend to find those who are more switched on, and use them to ‘manage’ the show, so they don’t suffer boredom, and they can relate to their friends. My role is simply to monitor, provide the framework and material and help when needed.

    I’ll stop there, or I’ll be finishing my PhD in this response 🙂

  • A very interesting and true assessment of language learning and I agree with all your arguments.
    Sadly the reality in Japan is that all “school” study opportunities are solely directed towards passing a test.
    I do have students with that intrinsic desire to progress further, but again sadly, this is far from the normal.
    We as teachers may argue/rebel against the test regime but to ignore the overriding reason for a students attendance in an English classroom is to be as blind to reality as the administrators in the Japanese Ministry of Education.

  • I was taught French and German at school which means that if i travel abroad to a country which does not speak French,German or English then i can not speak to the locals and enrich my visit . Is it not possible for all you Language Teachers and Education Authorities to meet Internationally and agree to all teach the same Second Language worldwide or are we the people going to be forever kept down by divided Languages ?

  • I hate it, I already know 2 languages, my own language and English, why tf do I need to learn 3?

  • Very interesting, good job, and thanks for sharing such a good blog. I personally love to learn a new language. I learned from smk futures language classes, check out if you are interested to learn something new.

  • Luca, this is dynamite! When I read this it amazed me, because I have through a different route come to the same conclusions (although you wrote them much better than I have!).
    I am a language teacher at a high school in the U.S. I have taught language for many years, and last year I decided to try something new – to learn another language through ‘polyglot methods’ and allow my students to do the same.
    What I came up with was I allowed each student to:
    1. choose their own language to learn (so they would be motivated)
    2. choose their own methods to use (after showing them a number of different polyglot methods)
    3. choose their own materials (like Easy Spanish videos, easy reader books, Goldlisting, Anki, etc)
    3. let them go at their own pace, as long as they were actively studying every day in class.

    The results have been amazing! And you have predicted them: the kids who desired to learn learned much faster than I have ever seen kids learn in my language classes. And those who didn’t want to learn, stayed in about the same place. Fascinating stuff, and thanks so much for writing this whole theory and process out clearly. I appreciate your work!

  • Im in a french class right now. I take it with a bunch of seniors in my high school. I am the only one able to speak, and i can really only talk to the teacher. It gets kind of lonely speaking another language in the US, just because no one takes other languages seriously

  • As a young student who has been doing dual immersion my whole life, in some aspects this makes sense but most of which is arguable. The dual immersion program is competitive but only amongst competitive students, otherwise it is very inclusive and very laid back. All my experiences include new friends and students and working together to build each other up and learn together. Even competitively if we wish. Like any class, you will get assignments and homework but any class will include that and any class will be competitive, mostly amongst students. I can not speak for all students and every program but of the 9 I have done, all have been incredible and I have become quite fluent. I would say it all depends on the program and the student.

  • I teach Spanish as a world language and English for multilingual learners in an American high school. Students in the English class want and need to learn the language. So, their progress is fast and in a steep curve. In Spanish, motivation is so low that I give them the answers and they still get it wrong. Like, literally, I show them “árbol” and they write “apple” al say “bol”. Inask them why. They laugh and say they forgot already. They want to be on their phones or they have so much math and science homework that they are constantly worrying about it and do Spanish work rushed and poorly just to get onto their homework in other “more important” classes. Ideally, classes should be provided for those who really want to learn. Sadly, if we don’t have at least 25 students Admin doesn’t open the class. So, you end up with students who just want to warm up a chair and/or goof around with their friends. Learning a foreign language requires sensitivity and appreciation for diverse thinking. Some youth are so immature they can’t simply understand why other people speak other languages or with accents. But, the teacher has to suck it up.

  • I believe in the same need, first find the motivation to learn another language, the why am learning that language? Second, the need to be exposed to the target language is essential, interaction outside of the classroom is vital to obtain knowledge and skills.

  • A good topic that establishes the real concept of learning foreign languages and the basic challenges that students face in learning foreign languages.

  • 1-Utilizing language learning apps and online resources can give students additional practice and exposure to native speakers.
    2-Schools can encourage using foreign language outside the classroom through clubs, conversation groups, or cultural events.

  • In my personal opinion, learn a second language is essential to success in century 21th

  • I do believe that intrinsic motivation is a key factor when learning a new language. There has to be something that drives you to learn. We learn what we are interested in.

  • This article is brilliant. I have studied French, Italian, and German (and a smattering of other languages as well) because I wanted to learn to sing in those languages, and that has made a huge difference in my willingness to dive deeply into the structure and sounds of these languages.

  • I so want my students to examine their reasons for studying foreign languages. Their motivation will determine how successful they are in the classroom. their goals can be varied so I have to design lessons to to not only fulfill required teks but also to engage with their interests and goals as well.

    • I think that the problem is that our school district pushes or requires that 90% of our students graduate with college pre- requisites completed to ensure that our graduates can easily move into university. No one is stopping to ask the learner what he or she wants, thus creating the unmotivated or uninterested student.

  • The article is mostly a reflexion with reasons why teaching a second languaje in a classroom is not successful. It also gives seven points to consider for SLA teachers. I have been a Spanish teacher for about eight years, and, during that period, I have realized that what the students in my class enjoy most is to have activities that take them out of the classroom without having to leave it. For example: Let’s go to the restaurant, to the supermarket; let’s go on a trip using materials similar to those in real life.

    Students do not like texbooks for learning a second language. Those materials turn them into passive students. They are forced to memorize and not deviate from the traditional teaching pattern. They fall asleep when the teacher dominates the class. The students ask to be both, the director and the protagonists who impose the laws and choose the topics.
    Another situation I have encountered as a teacher is that students do not understand why they are forced to take a second languaje. Normally they answer to themselves: It is a waste of time; they live in a country where English is spoken; the others are the ones who need to learn English since it is the most important languaje on the planet. Teachers have to be ready for that kind of thought or reaction. We must keep in mind that this generation is different; they are rebelious.

    I can mention three characteristics of proactive students:
    1. Good attitude and interest in learning
    2. Classes that motivate and challenge them
    3. They want to use the language on a daily basis
    4. They ask for interaction inside and outside the classroom

    I want my students to appreciate the materials I prepare and bring for them everyday.
    I want them to be ready to participate and interact
    I want them to accept the challenges of learning
    I want them to respect the abilities of other students
    The most important thing is I want them to have fun, and enjoy the class.
    I want what they learned to last forever

    • I agree. Having an open mind or positive outlook on learning, learning in a positive environment and daily use of the language in class as well as as outside definitely helps with language acquisition. In fact all these components contribute to creating a life long learner.

  • The motivation for the student to learn highly impacts their performance in language acquisition. If a student is truly interested, they will learn by any means necessary and even make it apart of their lives.

    • I agree. The setting in which the student is learning, back ground knowledge and their motivation definitely impacts the learning outcomes.

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