Why Learning Languages in School Sucks Most of The Time

The language learning programs in school are vastly unsuccessful. In this post you'll read how I failed French and my general thoughts and views on classroom-based language learning.

Let me bring you back to the times just after the millennium, I had graduated 6th grade and upon reaching 7th I was given the choice to study French.

No problem right?

I've got a keen language ear and French is the beautiful, romantic language used by millions.

I ended up going to French classes for the better half of 3 years and in the end I have only a basic vocabulary with an inability to form even the most basic of sentences.

What went wrong? I've previously shown aptitude at language acquisition, becoming fluent in English before I turned 12 (maybe earlier, I forget) but French was a different animal all together.

Not because the language is fundamentally different to the other languages of my existence, but because I approached it with a very bad mindset.

Why I Gave up French in The 8th grade

When I started French in seventh grade I was very lazy. A typical teenager with absolutely zero interest in school. This meant that the scope of my French studies surmounted to basically just showing up, most of the time.

I had no passion for it, no interest in fluency and worst of all I even spent some of the classes being rowdy and got myself thrown out.

Furthermore, after my success in English and German I had become slightly arrogant. But not completely without reason though.

I have always been very quick at basic vocabulary and sentences, but my problem was that due to arrogance I did not progress, also not exactly helped by the fact that the teacher and environment did not support those who showed great promise.

Instead they tried to standardise the class level to somewhere around “Je m'apelle Kris” and that did not inspire me to turbocharge my French learning.

Why 8 Years of German Only Got Me to B1

My story with German began in fifth grade. My school was quite ambitious with foreign languages and had begun to offer English at 2nd grade and German at 6th.

The school standard at the time was to begin English around 4th and a second foreign language, usually German, but some places French, at around grade 7.

I was offered introductory German lessons in grade 5, but it wasn’t until 6th grade that we started having it as any other subject.

I did German in grades 5,6,7,8,9 and 10, before moving on to high school where I picked it for 3 additional years.

That’s 8 years of at least 2 45-minute lessons a week.

In Denmark we go to school approximately 200 days a year. Dividing 200 by 7 gives 28 weeks. Let’s be generous and round up to 29.

That means that over an 8 year period I had just below 310 hours of German.

Fast forward to 2014, where I enrolled in the German programme at my university to compliment my major in English.

As part of taking the degree we were asked to do an OnDaf-test, which uses a “fill-in-the-blanks”-method to assess one’s level in German.

I tested to a B1 level with just over 40% correct.

I wasn’t expecting much from the test, as I hadn’t used a lot of German in a while and also I recalled my experiences at Polyglot Berlin, where I was able to use the language, but not particularly confidently.

I did however, understand everything that people said to me. This perhaps deluded me into thinking I would be at least B2, but no matter.

What Did I Actually Learn in German Classes?

Learning German in school is not entirely wasted. I felt like I did gain a few strengths:

  • Vocabulary – I definitely learned a lot of vocabulary through reading practice and assignments. This is probably my biggest strength right now.
  • Pronunciation – The teachers at my school put a huge emphasis on pronunciation, which means that I have developed a pretty good accent. It has to be used though! Otherwise it simply vanishes.

I’m actually happy that I tested B1, because now I have a hunger to improve the language.

And who knows, if I didn’t do the test I might have ignorantly assumed that I was way better than I actually was.

Now I can focus on improving my German in the future, and hopefully getting it to a C1 level which would be my goal.

Also another perspective given to me by this realisation, is that independent studying of a language with a tutor is SOOOOO superior to the school way.

Take advantage of this fact and become fluent in your target language in no time!

Why Learning Languages in School Sucks

Of course my inability to learn French in School is not entirely my own fault, although I'm sure if I REALLY wanted to I could have.

These are some of the weaknesses that I think are currently the reason for people not really getting far in language classes in school.

  1. Not very intensive: You often only meet once a week. When I was in 7th we had a double lesson every Monday and that was it. After that it would be 7 more days until I heard ANY French again.
  2. Not individualised: Not to be elitist or arrogant, but the teacher is employed to help all 20+ students learn French. If somebody in the class needs extra explanations that you would not have needed, you are essentially wasting time. This is why self-study is awesome, because you can work in your own pace.
  3. Not well made: This is a highly controversial point, but in my opinion the school system of language learning does not work very well. Basically the language teachers wants you to learn all the forms of To be or to have or all the conjugations of irregular verbs first, when in fact you should be diving straight into sentences.
  4. No native influence or immersion: Although one of my French teachers did in fact come from France, there was no immersion at this stage. I did not watch any French TV, listen to any French movies or even attempt to communicate in French.
  5. Little focus on speaking: Most people struggle with speaking a language after they study the language for a long time in school, even 4 year university graduates have this problem.

Endlessly Memorising Words is Useless

One of the biggest criticisms I have of the school learning model, is that the constant repetition of conjugation tables and vocabulary lists is really inferior to alternative approaches.

What if traditional classes started emphasising more on natural sentences? Learning sentence patterns early on, so you're later able to fill in vocabulary and grammar?

Essentially what I want is for language learning classes to focusing on production, rather than retention of information. Endlessly recalling information is very useful for subjects like maths, but the approach will not make you speak a foreign language rapidly.

How can we make language learning in school better?

This question has probably been put forth a number of times, and while I have many theories on the matter I cannot provide a concise answer to this question.

One thing I know for sure is that we HAVE to find a way to make students take more responsibility for their own learning, and make teachers more like language coaches rather than language teachers.

How this is achieved – I have no idea.

I'm just happy that I as an adult have discovered the resources that allow me to learn all the languages in the world. This time I will not fail French!

Final Note: Some Teachers Are Amazing

During this post I have made a lot of broad criticisms of a whole system.

I just wanted to end this post on a positive note and mention that there are actually some amazing teachers out there, who're trying to make language learning not only fun and enjoyable but practical and useful.

These teachers deserve a lot of praise!

However, I'm absolutely confident these teachers only make up a tiny fraction of the world's teachers and we must keep spreading the word to try and reach the remaining 99%.

Thank you for reading this all the way, if you have a language learning in school story or any comments or ideas on how to improve language learning in schools – throw a comment below! It's absolutely free and without any obligations 🙂

 

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  • Christine says:

    Hi Chris,

    I have to admit that I don’t agree completely!

    Of course you learn faster and more independently when you learn alone or in one-to-one sessions, but for many students language courses is the right choice because they keep up their motivation (because of the social aspect) and they are “forced” to do something in their target language once a week.

    There are good courses and bad courses: it depends on the teacher, on the group itself, on the material used.

    I’m a language teacher myself and I use authentic material from books, the internet, mostly authentic resources – mostly I work without that typical “school books”. There are very lively discussions, the students are encouraged to suggest topics and they work on projects quite often. A project we are working on in Italian is the EXPO 2015 (taking place in Milan this year) – they think it’s a great topic and it has nothing to do with that old school learning… And honestly, I think, my courses are good! 😉

    Many students need a weekly session where they can meet other learners and not everybody wants to learn a language to reach perfection. Some only learn it to be able to communicate during their holidays. For them a “normal” language course seems to be the right choice, and it’s affordable. One-to-one-sessions are far more expensive.

    I think a good compromise is to say: Everybody should decide what to do to reach one’s own goals. If they decide on a language course – ok. If they decide on another form of learning – ok.

    I know that you are talking about the classical school courses – here I agree with you. But I don’t think that you can generalize. As always there are good and bad courses.

    This is only my personal opinion. Normally we agree on almost everything, but this time … but that’s life.

    Kind regards
    Christine

    • Hi Christine,

      I think if I had you as a teacher I would have a much better view on the traditional language learning in school 🙂

      The problem is language learning in most school is so boring, unimaginative and uninspiring. A bit responsibility lies on the teacher, but sadly most systems are just stuck in the past and don’t even allow new teachers to adapt the syllabus to be more interesting.

      Thanks for your input – always appreciated

  • Namnoot says:

    Your experience isn’t much different than mine was in the 1980s when I was in high school when I was so turned off French that I’ve had zero interest in learning it or any other language since and now at 47 I don’t have the time or energy to spend learning something from scratch. I could add a couple of items to your list: 5. Supportive teachers. I gave up on French after being told too often that I didn’t have the aptitude and one time I attempted to write a book report in French and I’ll never forget what was said when I got it back marked 10% (“For effort, otherwise would be zero”): that it not only looked like it was written on a computer (this was in the days when I was one of the only students with a word pro at home; everyone else either typed or did longhand) but written BY a computer. And 6. There is no support for students who are afraid of being silly. Especially today when you have high schoolers hanging themselves because someone pokes fun at them on Facebook or wherever, the whole concept of making a fool of oneself while trying to learn – it’s great for students who might be gregarious and already have girl or boyfriends galore and are the popular ones in the crowd, but for introverted students who feel everything they do is being scrutinized and teased, trying to speak a French sentence and sounding like they just had a stroke is the last thing they want to do. One good thing about learning on one’s own, I suppose, is no one is around to laugh at you. Yet at the same time you may not know you’re doing wrong and bad habits may be ingrained. Catch-22.

  • Love it! I liked language classes, but I can’t say I learned much. What makes/breaks it for me is the amount of conversation in class. I took an intensive German class in high school, and we spoke so much, even from day 1. We had to recite the alphabet every day. Eventually, we had to memorize Goethe and recite it. The teacher spoke in German most of the time, even after just one week.

    By the time I was in grad school, I took the bull by the horns. I took Modern Standard Arabic, and the students were mostly undergrads. I chose to speak only in Arabic in class. If I didn’t know a word, I asked the teacher and continued on. Last week I sat in on a Basque class in Spain. I know very basic Basque, but I just made sentences–even if they made no sense.

    Now I go to an Oromo class every week. Everyone in the class knows more than me. But I speak what I know, ask for what I don’t. But I speak. Every class.

    If the teacher is not forcing students to speak every class, then students will not learn. I also think if they talk, they will have more fun.

  • The Language Rose says:

    i completely agree with your on some points you’ve made. Being a secondary school teacher of foreign languages myself, it is really true that unfortunately not enough time is given to this subject and classes are far too crowded to ensure that students really use the language actively (and often there are many students who are really willing to study language together with students who don’t want to do a language at all but have to, which creates disruption).Active learning strategies (e.g. role plays, speaking activities) should be the main parts of a language lesson, yet it is impossible when a class is made up of 30 students, all completely different from each other, who need to be prepared in the first place to pass a standardised language exam – which doesn’t really reflect the real life either!

  • profling says:

    “Table linguistics” is useless. Just say,”Please pass the butter,” instead of going into oral gymnastics in French or German. The only meaningful foreign language study is poetry.

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