Most people call those who know 4 languages: a polyglot, those who know 3: trilingual, and those who know 2: bilingual.
But what do people call those who only know 1?
But why is this so?
Afterall, a language class for four years at a typical high school in North Carolina does amount to 370 days of class and 555 hours of learning.
Assuming that the course is a semester-long, and each period is 1 hour and a half.
With the Foreign Language Institute indicating that it takes 480 hours for English speakers to reach fluency in “category 1” languages like Spanish, French, and Italian ( “Foreign Service Institute”), high school students should be more than fluent by the time they graduate.
But according to the General Social Survey, only 0.7% of high school graduates have acquired fluency from language courses. (Caplan, Bryan)
And if students opt for the frequently required route of two years, then the gap from a presumably “half-fluency” is even more pronounced.
This is largely due to passive participation on the part of students, as a result of the classic “teacher-centered” paradigm of learning, where the teacher is treated as the sole provider of information.
This in itself produces an inherently discouraging thought process remarked on by University language professors, who have even stated “It isn’t that people don’t think language education is important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.” (Friedman, Amelia)
Instead of educators being taught to change this mindset, they’re taught to focus on providing grammar rules and elementary-level vocabulary that render students incapable of maintaining even a 5-minute conversation with a native speaker.
To make matters worse, oftentimes, an excessive emphasis is placed on reading and writing, when speaking and listening are the actual keys to fluent communication in a foreign language.
If students were made to both engage in and observe conversations from day one, then grammar and an understanding of new vocabulary would begin to occur naturally.
Students would be forced to use context to decipher meanings instead of direct translations that encourage a lengthy thought conversion process, where the student first thinks in their native language just to then translate each word one-by-one.
Language acquisition by visual cues and context indirectly provides students with the connotation associated with a phrase or term, in contrast with a denotation that lacks the nuances native speakers attach to their understandings.
A learning environment like this would mimic the natural process in which children acquire languages– that of through regular interaction with speakers, exaggerated intonation and sounds, lots of repetition and questions, simpler vocabulary, and basic sentence structure.
When surrounded by conversations in the target language, it’s easy for children to rapidly acquire one, two, or even three languages, so that aspect should undoubtedly be the primary foundation of foreign language courses.
Students should use outside digital resources way more than they do
We live in a nation that’s educational system is becoming more and more reliant on technological innovations.
So why not “digitize” the language-learning process as well?
Instead of teaching students to rely on teachers as if it’s their responsibility for the student to learn the language, teach students to acquire the language themselves through complete “digital immersion.”
Gone are the days of having to visit a country to immerse yourself in a target language.
There are tons of ways for students to set devices to foreign languages and communicate with pen pals across the world, receiving free conversational practice with those who are too looking to learn English.
Language exchange with native speakers is extremely possible through different applications or websites like “HelloTalk” and “Italki.”
Specific class time should be explicitly set aside for using outside reliable sources that offer additional insights; those which don’t typically fit into the curriculum laid aside for teachers.
Students should be required to keep notes on newly acquired language insights, and strongly encouraged to interact with both people and material in their target language.
Students should then be given time to exchange information with fellow students and speak in the foreign language as much as possible to retain what they’ve learned.
Students shouldn’t be made to fear mistakes
I’ve seen both in myself and other students, an acute avoidance of speaking in the target language due to a fear of making mistakes.
This is a real downfall on the part of school language learning systems since mistakes are the literal stepping stones to acquiring any language.
It’s simply impossible to acquire a language without making mistakes, and the only way a student won’t make mistakes is if the student isn’t speaking it, and if the student isn’t speaking it, then the student won’t ever acquire it.
So instead of automatically correcting students for improper expression in the language, educators need to either guide them to what they’re attempting to communicate or allow other students to offer their own attempts at understanding.
If students were able to go straight into courses with the knowledge that so-called “baby talk” is not just an acceptable, but intellectual starting-point for language acquisition, they would feel comfortable making mistakes and adequately prepared for higher-level conversations.
“Speaking from day 1” is an approach that many successful polyglots take to acquiring languages; and it’s been proven to aid learners in actually retaining a language.
Students need to be taught to approach any new language with an appreciation for its sounds and should begin attempting both tones and diacritics as soon as possible.
Learners repeatedly report feelings of excitement and increased motivation after being told they sound like a native speaker, and encouraging students to develop their own personal passion for the language is ultimately the key to them putting in the effort to acquire it.
Mimicry of the natural environment experienced during early childhood should be the ultimate goal of school language learning systems.
A focus on “Dictionary-styled” learning instead of a naturally well-rounded approach
Every human acquires their mother tongue by both listening and (eventually) attempting to interact with those around them.
Babies listen all the time and as a result, begin making subconscious connections regarding relationships, objects, and basic concepts.
Of course this is largely due to parents and other speakers around them who are more than willing to communicate using facial expressions, pointing, body language, and simple words.
What babies don’t do is acquire their mother tongues by mentally translating each word into a pre established set of sounds that they understand.
They’re not taught to rely on sounds that they already understand since those sounds clearly have no use in acquiring an actual knowledge of real words.
So students clearly take an extremely flawed approach to language acquisition when their form of learning is solely through translation of their mother tongue.
All that does is encourage a lengthy thought process when if they had been encouraged to use context and visual cues, they would’ve been able to connect the meanings with words, instead of their translations.
Don’t get me wrong, dictionary-styled learning definitely does provide some serious advantages in both speeding up the acquisition process and explaining complex concepts– but since patience is of the essence, students should focus on learning basic foreign words that would allow them to eventually develop higher-level sentences.
Courses are not personally motivating
Now, of course, you could make the argument that students do generally score relatively highly on class exams and quizzes, which clearly demonstrates some level of proficiency in the language right?
And that the academic language learning system has even proven beneficial in pushing students who actually care to memorize most of a couse’s vocabulary and curriculum objectives, and acquire an understanding of general conversations– so it does seem to be doing its job.
Well of course it does.
High school courses provide an extremely useful foundation for any foreign language.
Arguably, the most challenging part of acquiring a language is starting it and these courses actually hold you accountable for demonstrating your progress in that element.
But these courses are not designed to be intrinsically motivating.
Students who don’t bring their own level of enthusiasm into the language-learning process are taught to view grades as progress, and work just hard enough to secure what they deem to be acceptable scores.
Looking at the AP scores for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese, it appears that about 8,000 students annually learn to speak a foreign language in high school just well enough to get an A on a college level course. (“Available Reports:”)
When comprehension of a language is measured by much more than simply memorizing vocabulary and grammar– after all, it is an entirely new way of expressing yourself.
Students may remember what to say, and maybe even when to say it, but when they’re not given flexibility as to how their going to learn it and not encouraged to seek a personal motivation as to why they want to learn it, it makes reasonable sense for them to treat the language as an academic course instead of an actual language.
They should be encouraged to learn words and phrases that interest them from the start, so that then they’re able to make connections and draw their own conclusions about sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary ‘patterns’ through a process that they enjoy.
Students aren’t encouraged to use a wide, diverse range of ‘teachers’
I’m sure that most of us can agree that learning with a teacher is much simply more efficient than learning without one.
And if that’s being presented as an argument against my rejection of teacher paradigm learning, then I’ll rebut by informing you that students should definitely use an array of unconventional teachers, including their course instructor, to fill in knowledge gaps.
My issue is the student-taught reliance on one teacher instead of using native speakers, former language learners, and the self-creation of personal instructors from online resources.
Even YouTubers, bloggers, and social media users can serve as indirect teachers and provide great insights regarding colloquialism and a more natural expression of the language.
Students have to use a wide range of teachers and teaching resources to truly grasp all the nuances of a language.
Why is this a cause of concern?
While I do appreciate the large amount of primary schooling institutions that do offer language learning programs, I find it impossible to ignore the flaws that make students’ enrollments just above an acute waste of time.
Schools have to ingrain in the minds of students that foreign language courses aren’t just another subject, but a vital tool in the globalization that’s reshaping our economy and a necessity for keeping up with growing international relations.
It’s not enough to just put students in a memorization-based learning environment– they have to be taught to personalize and love their own process for acquisition.
Students must be pushed to find their own “why” and physically see even the minor impacts language skills can have on the lives of foreigners.
Students must be pushed to attain full awareness of all the unconventional learning resources available to them and advised on how to most efficiently use them.
The 97.3% of high school graduates who fail to attain fluency in their target languages more than demonstrates a need to change the high school foreign language system.
I propose instructors be able to focus less on personally teaching students the language and more on teaching students how to teach themselves the language.
Because at the end of the day, language is not someone you can acquire through 90 minute class periods every other day, or classes everyday for just half of the academic year.
Because at the end of the day, the courses can be there to hold students accountable and provide answers to questions but students have to understand that their teacher, classmates, and classroom setting shouldn’t serve as their main forms of interaction with the language.
The schools themselves need to integrate a wide range of diverse teaching material, and inform students of the broad supply of non-academic teaching resources they should be referring to outside of the classroom.
Before you head out
You can agree to disagree with me if you like– I’d even be more than happy to read your reason why down below.
Being a high school student myself, I’m just here to present my own case against the language learning system I’ve personally experienced.
Nonetheless, I’m really thankful that you took time out of your day to read this article.
Since you’re here, I’m assuming your someone planning to take a language course, a current student, a parent of a student, or just someone generally interest in improving intercultural awareness in America.
My goal with this site is to make sure that self-driven people like yourself are given a fair opportunity to make the language acquisition process as naturally simple as possible.
As in a practical, efficient learning process that mimics the way in which toddlers naturally acquire languages.
The approach focuses on immersion on a digital scale, instead of the traditionally costly alternative of physically traveling to immerse yourself.
It’s a method for busy and/or financially limited individuals looking to reach fluency in a language without ever having to leave their house.
Sound like the plan for you? Then make sure you sign up to receive your free copy of Everything you need to know about the naturally simple language acquisition process.
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- “Available Reports: AP Central – College Board.” AP Central, 11 Dec. 2019, apcentral.collegeboard.org/scores/available-reports.
- Caplan, Bryan, et al. “The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money.” Econlib, 20 June 2018, www.econlib.org/archives/2012/08/the_marginal_pr.html.
- “Foreign Service Institute – United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, www.state.gov/bureaus-offices/under-secretary-for-management/foreign-service-institute/.
- Friedman, Amelia. “America’s Lacking Language Skills.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 May 2015, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/filling-americas-language-education-potholes/392876/.