Math, History, Science, Language. Which of these don’t belong? All four are universally recognized as core subjects of education at virtually any level. To answer the question, Language does not belong on this list. Now, before anyone launches off angry emails or tweets, I want to make it known that I am NOT advocating against Language education. I AM advocating for a different approach. Intrigued? Read on…
Why the Traditional Approach Works for Traditional Subjects
The goals of Math, History, and Science are pretty straightforward. With Math, the goal is to be able to set-up, work-through, and complete equations. The goal of History is to memorize dates, facts, and sometimes to analyze events and cycles. Science? Memorize formulas, figures, and utilize Math to ultimately predict and explain systems and how they function.
Language, on the other hand, truly has one goal: Communication. Language inherently is a truly social animal. Unlike the other traditional subjects, Language learning is not meant to be an individual study subject. This is not to say that certain pieces of it (grammar, vocabulary, reading, etc) cannot be studied independently, but in order to ultimately utilize a language, you have to have more than one person. This is where modern education falls short. They aren’t teaching “Language”, they are merely teaching grammar and vocabulary, which are nothing more than building blocks.
The traditional classroom/textbook approach works for Math because it is, by nature, an individual endeavor. It is (for the most part) static, factual, and a closed loop. There is a beginning, middle, and end to every equation. If you know the formula, you can setup and solve any equations within that formula. It was tailor made for traditional learning. Language, on the other hand, is constantly evolving and, outside of reading, is relatively useless in an exclusively individual environment.
Why Does Language Continue to be Taught Using the Traditional Approach?
I am definitely not the first person to come to this conclusion about the current state of language education, and I certainly won’t be the last. Educators are well aware of the shortcomings of the traditional teaching methods as they relate to Language learning. Survey after survey has been done (especially in the UK and US) relating to students inability to speak (or even function) in a language after 4+ years of traditional classroom education. It’s no secret to educators. So why hasn’t it changed?
1. Grammar and spot vocabulary is easy to test. Education these days (especially pre-University education) is all about grades and tests. Grammar is testable, whereas prosody, conversation, communicative abilities, and other fundamentals of language use are not.
2. It’s the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way and it works just fine.” This is a tough barrier, especially in a field the size of academics. Change of this magnitude would be an enormous feat.
3. There’s no consensus on exactly HOW to change it. The field of language acquisition is (one could argue) in it’s infancy. There are numerous “methods” and “schools of thought” when it comes to language learning, and there is some debate about the most effective methods.
4. It’s not that important to the education system. This is primarily a United States and UK problem. Truthfully, these countries’ educational systems have never really cared if anybody graduates High School and speaks another language. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they EXPECT their graduates to remain monolingual because of their belief that English really is “all you need”.
How do we fix it?
Now comes the hard part. How to do it right. As I mentioned previously, there is no consensus among the Language Acquisition experts on the 100% most effective language learning method. In fact, we may not have even discovered the most effective method yet. So, how can we fix this? Or, at the very least, how can we make it better?
The first thing that I would change is to combine early language education with history and cultural study. Without it’s unique culture and rich history, a language is just a code. It no longer carries any uniqueness or relevance. It just becomes a code, like Morse Code or Pig Latin.
A deeper understanding of the underlying culture and evolution of the Countries that speak it can not only enrich our understanding of the nuances of the language, but it can also have a profound effect on our motivation to learn the language. This motivation is a big part of what’s missing from current language education. Without motivation, no one will learn a language. Instead, they will merely memorize the grammar structures and the vocabulary just long enough to pass the test and forget it.
The second thing I would change is the focus of most primary education language classes from grammar to communication. To me, this would involve a switch from paper tests to more practical (and subjective) “speaking and listening” type tests or an overall class participation grade. In this type of environment, creativity and actual use of the language would be encouraged and nurtured. The exact method (TPR, TPRS, Direct, etc) would be up to the experts, but the change from “all grammar, all the time” would make a huge difference.
One last suggestion I have would be the formation of “language labs” for practice outside of the classroom. These would be extra curricular groups organized by school officials designed to encourage use of the language and interaction with other students (and potentially faculty) exclusively in the target language. These groups would meet regularly (preferably everyday) and would include organized activities, social time, and perhaps field trips.
Granted, the Language Labs would not be mandatory, but could be worth extra credit in their language classes . The ideal would be that the history and culture knowledge as well as the more engaging and socially fulfilling class structure would create increased motivation for the students to actually WANT to participate in the Language Labs.
What Did I Hope to Accomplish With This Post?
Well, probably nothing at this point except to keep this glaring problem at the forefront. It won’t be a single post or a single journal report that will produce change, but every little bit of attention that the issue can garner has to help. The key is to increase awareness. I know, I know, it’s not a disease or a safety issue, but it’s still broken and it needs to be fixed. Multilingualism not only has health benefits, but also can have both social and economic benefits as well (which is a topic in and of itself for a future post).
I know this was a bit dryer than most of my other posts, but it is a topic I feel very strongly about and experienced firsthand as well as with my High School children.
To close, I will leave you with a true story:
My daughter was a Sophomore in High School (10th grade) and had taken 3 years of Spanish already. She couldn’t really say anything at all but could conjugate verbs and recite lists of colors and animals. She started dating a boy from Puerto Rico who, although pretty fluent in English, spoke Spanish at home and with his Spanish speaking friends as Spanish was his first language. After a few months, my daughter seemed to take a much larger interest in Spanish as she learned more about Puerto Rican culture and history. In fact, after they had been dating for almost two years, her Spanish was quite fluent. It wasn’t “Spanish class” fluent, but she could communicate with her boyfriend and his family quite well and really enjoyed it. All because she had a reason to learn it. She was motivated not only by her boyfriend (after all, he DID speak English), but also by learning more about the culture and having people to communicate with and to relate to through the language.
What suggestions do YOU have for improving language education?