Nearly all of us reading this article today are products of a “traditional” school system. By that we mean a system in which you had to show up each morning and attend classes for fixed periods of time to eventually pass tests and possibly graduate. The talk nowadays is whether or not this model is still serving us successfully in the 21st century.
Has the school system failed language learning?
Even as some governments and individuals have instituted reforms over the years, the fundamentals described above have not changed. They’ve been held up as the standard for well over a century.
One area in which we believe the school system has failed us is the field of language learning. In this article, we’ll be exploring the various factors behind this in more detail—introducing the five big failures of the school system with regard to foreign language teaching.
1. Lack of an immersive environment
Picture the typical language-learning classroom. A teacher stands at the front of the class, reciting words written on a blackboard/whiteboard or on the page of a textbook. Students then recite the word back to the teacher once, twice and possibly a third time before moving on to the next one. These words are then tested the following week in a vocabulary test.
What’s more, as soon as class is over the kids leave the room, return to their mother tongue and forget all about the second language. To really master a language, learners need an immersive experience where a language surrounds them, penetrates their minds and permeates their thinking. Having more subjects available in a second language would allow students to really live the language and not just recite individual words.
2. Neglect of individual needs
Schools mostly employ a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to language learning. With everyone using the same textbook, memorizing the same words, completing the same gap-fill exercises and answering the same speaking test questions, there’s really very little room for personalized learning.
As long as schools demand the same from every student, the system won’t produce great results.
Language acquisition requires progress in all language skills and systems. This happens at various rates for different students. Therefore, each student’s uniqueness should be considered in terms of existing skills and potential. As long as schools demand the same from every student, the system won’t produce great results.
3. Too little focus on speaking
In between all the word recitations, listening quizzes and reading comprehension exercises that students have to complete, there’s very little time for them to actually speak the language. Large class sizes compound this issue. In a single class, each student might barely have time to say a single sentence or two.
Speaking and using the words and sentence structures we learn is the best way to solidify them in our minds and retain them for future use. The less time students spend on speaking practice, the less of the language they’ll recall in the future.
4. A failure to make students into active learners
Language learning in the traditional school system is a hugely passive experience. You sit, you listen, you repeat, you write, you read, you answer questions and on it goes. If we want temporary learners who fulfill the testing requirements at the end of a course and then forget everything they’ve learned, then the traditional system has been a marvelous success.
In our view, however, the goal should be to create life-long learners who take the skills and knowledge they learn at school with them. This way they can use them to continue their language learning journey through their whole lives. They may even employ the study skills to add more languages to their repertoire.
5. Lack of comprehensive and current materials
When have you last seen a language learning textbook? Was the last one you saw from the early 2000s? If so, chances are that the one used back in 2001 is much the same as the ones being used in 2020, only with fewer fancy visuals. The materials we make students use at school are inadequate in the real world of language learning.
Students need modern and relevant materials with the most current vocabulary.
They usually consist of 10-20 themed units, each with a list of words and partially defunct idiomatic expressions, a central reading text, supplementary listening material (held and controlled by the teacher, usually), a token speaking question at the end and a homework task.
Students need modern and relevant materials with the most current vocabulary. The language needs to be put into a relatable context with which students can connect.
Real-life learning for real-life skills
Perhaps we are being too harsh on the school system. Oftentimes it’s a mixture of funding issues, recruitment trouble and obstruction from unions and government interests that’s hampering progress.
In one way, you could say that the woeful state of language learning in most public schools has actually spurred passionate learners to seek and even create better alternatives. Some examples include smartphone apps and online learning platforms where you can interact directly with native speakers and language learning professionals, and many more.
It’s an exciting time to be a language learner. There have never been so many resources readily available to people everywhere in the world.
In conclusion, we ought to develop a completely fresh attitude to language learning in order to support new generations of language learners and users in a world much more interconnected through the internet than ever before. This is a new age of language acquisition and a new age requires new approaches.