Why Learning a Foreign Language in School Doesn’t Work (and How to Make it Work)

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 students find in-school language learning difficult, boring or discouraging. 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 language learning 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 the Internet era, should be a leader, facilitator, motivator, 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

If you’re interested in discovering more ways to be a proactive language learner, please visit the chapter on Proactivity in my LinguaCore’s free course, The 10 Essential Elements of Successful Language 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 makes, material 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 tries to apply 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 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, inspirational and cooperative environment, and 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 twnty students on one single room for Spanish speakers and I realized that these students were in a laboratory using computer 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 learners, be 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 language at school, high school, college or university most 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 give 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.

Conclusion

There you have it.

Language learning can be a fantastic adventure, both inside and out 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 in-school language learning environments don’t include a number of elements which I believe are essential to successful language learning (this is one of my LinguaCore’s course)

These elements include, but are not limited to, Enjoyment, Proactivity, Regularity, and Motivation.

I would 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, and I’d love to hear your perspective!

Article written by Luca Lampariello

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