The One Reason Every Traditional Language Class Fails

Classroom Chairs by James Sarmiento

This is really not the best place to be learning a second language.

If you’ve gone through the school system or have attended a university in the U.S., chances are you’ve spent some time in a foreign language class. What’s more, unless you majored in that specific language, you probably don’t speak it all that well for having spent so much time in class. In fact most people, when asked, could barely function in the language they studied.

I was no different. At UC I took almost four years of Japanese classes. At the end of those four years I could maybe carry on a two-minute conversation in Japanese. Maybe. There would probably be a lot of ‘What does ________ mean?’s involved and the other person would have to speak slowly. Turn on a Japanese TV show or movie and I could have picked out a word or two, maybe a sentence here or there, but I was still chained to subtitles. I wasn’t alone in that. I was one of the better students in the class – no one was anywhere near fluent.

The teachers weren’t to blame either. They were fantastic. Were it not for the unconventional methods of our teachers we wouldn’t have even made it as far as we did. Not to mention none of the classes with any of the teachers hit what I would consider fluency. That suggests it wasn’t their fault.

So if all the students with all the teachers get equally poor results all the way across the board what does that mean?

It means there’s something wrong with the system.

Thankfully the thing that’s wrong is easy to figure out, primarily because it’s a standard part of all traditional language classes. Most of the class is spent in your native language.

Think about it. If you’ve ever taken language classes (and I assume if you’re in the U.S. most of you have) how much time was spent explaining new grammar points in English, going over new vocab in English and talking about homework, grades, schedules and all the other minutia of class in English? When you compare that to the minuscule amount of time you actually spend conversing in the target language in these classes it’s apparent why they never really work that well.

The same goes for the homework in most of these classes. Written homework is the most common, because it’s easiest logistically. Second comes listening practice, usually off of CDs or maybe online materials depending on the class. Last comes speaking homework, usually done in the form of preparing for presentations you have to give in class. Have you ever had a language teacher tell you to go out and chat with a native speaker for 30 minutes for homework?

So how do you mitigate the effects of this system and get the most out of your language instruction?

Make a point of speaking your target language whenever you can.

Get over any stage fright or shyness you might have about talking in front of people. It’ll only hold you back. Whenever the teacher asks something offer to answer. Even if you don’t know it, offer to answer and get corrected. Even try to answer questions they ask in English in your target language. The worst case scenario is you get it wrong, get corrected and learn something. Sure you might feel embarrassed for a minute, but at the end of the semester when you speak better than all your classmates it will have been worth it.

The next thing to do is to hunt down native speakers and practice with them whenever you can. You can use services like iTalki.com or even CouchSurfing.org to find people online or in your area to chat with. The point is to put the time in to find someone because practicing one on one with a real live native speaker will be the best thing you do to advance your ability in your target language.

Lastly, get the most out of your teacher. I don’t mean be obnoxious, but if you have questions ask. Request clarification or extra explanations about grammar. Ask if there would be better ways to say certain things. They are there to help you, so let them help you.

If you’re taking a traditional language class keep these things in mind if you really want to get the most out of it and get on your way to fluency.

Have any other tips you would add? Any other reasons you think traditional classes are effective or ineffective? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: James Sarmiento

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Adam is a linguist and personal trainer living in Cincinnati with his wife Caroline and dog Bailey. He's addicted to all things related to language, parkour, fitness and martial arts. You can contact Adam at Adam@RoadToEpic.com, on Twitter or on Google Plus.

  • Anvit

    Great article ! Thanks for all the tips. I am trying to learn Dutch these days as I am moving to The Netherlands for studies soon. I have bought the Pimsleur modules and listen to one lesson a day. Any tips that you have for some on learning a new language not in a classroom but virtually. Thanks.

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      Thanks! I’m glad it was helpful. Pimsleur is definitely useful as a way to get started. I’d also go sign up for Memrise (www.memrise.com) and go get the app if you’ve got an iPhone or Android. It’s free and it’s a great way to learn a lot of vocabulary quickly. I haven’t checked but I’d be surprised if there weren’t a Dutch vocab module.

      Depending on how long you have before you go if you practice 30 words a day on Memrise you can learn 1,000 words in roughly a month. From there it’s easy to start picking apart newspapers and having basic conversations with people online to practice via iTalki (www.italki.com) or Lang-8 (www.lang-8.com). The most important thing is just to make a point of trying to live your life in Dutch well before you ever leave.

      Hope that helps! Good luck with your learning!