Are there better ways to teach languages?

Sunday , February 25, 2018 - 12:00 AM

TX. Correspondent

Foreign language is a staple of the modern high school education. Whether you are looking for scholarship opportunities, working toward college requirements or are generally interested in speaking a different language, you’ll probably end up in some type of foreign language class.

And it makes sense: After all, according to vistawide, a site that lists statistics for the most spoken languages in 2005, only 340 million of the 6.3 billion strong population spoke English as a native language. This works out to about 5 percent of the world.

It stands to reason that if English represents such a small amount of the world, then we ought to be looking for ways to reach out and connect across language barriers. Undoubtedly, it could lead to fewer misunderstandings, and certainly to a deeper appreciation of culture around the world.

However, although an overwhelming majority of high schools offer foreign language classes, “The Atlantic” reports that less than 1 percent of American adults are proficient in a language they studied in a United States classroom.

This statistic provides ample ground for us to re-examine our approach on foreign language, as it proves to be inadequate to teach our students. Simply put, although most students go through foreign language classes, almost none retain language skills, provoking the question of what they yet lack.

• Speak first, then write? 

Many foreign language high school students face problems similar to that of an average at-home learner: Although they can read and write fairly well at some points, they are unable to follow along at the language’s conversation speed and stumble over words as they try to speak. This very problem prompted me to further research better ways to learn.

I have wanted to learn Spanish for some time, and although I have casually used Duolingo and now am part of a Spanish class, I can’t imagine trying to actually speak to someone who is fluent in the language. One resource I found, called The Mimic Method, contends that most language learning processes are backward. Almost everyone learned to speak long before they read or wrote; therefore, it is counterproductive to learn to write first in our foreign language classes.

This company says if you master how to hear and pronounce the key elements of a language, then learning the language will follow much more naturally.

And it is a reasonable claim. Practically no one learned to read as a child before they learned to form sounds and assign meaning to the groups. Thus, it seems illogical to assume that as teens or adults we can somehow learn language in a new order.

The Mimic Method also says most people are missing basic sounds of languages, meaning that they can’t hear parts of language that are spoken to them. This makes it even more important to make sure schools give students the tools to hear and speak these sounds to become fluent.

• Boost immersion opportunities 

Even at schools that do focus more on making sure you speak with a proper accent, this principle can be extended further. Perhaps schools can adjust programs to make hearing and understanding basic sounds of a language central to the beginning of the curriculum. Instead of working through endless pages of vocabulary, students could submit recordings of themselves practicing sounds and make a record of when they recognize these sounds. As kids move toward understanding what people say, reading and writing the language can follow more naturally.

Secondly, most language programs give few opportunities for immersion in a language. This is a tough problem to battle, since it’s not like a whole school can just speak a certain language for the benefit of one class, but there are certainly ways to provide authentic language experiences.

For example, a class can transition to speaking more and more of the foreign language as students progress. It may be somewhat impractical for the flow of class to begin with total immersion (and may lead to some kids checking out entirely if they just don’t know what’s going on), but as the year progresses, the amount of language students are exposed to also can increase. 

We also could give students chances to actually interact with native speakers. This can be achieved through a variety of ways; for example, there are websites in which students of language across the world connect to practice conversation. As students connect with natives of a different language, it opens the opportunity to both have meaningful connections across countries, and to allow for more rapid and lasting learning of said language.

One more factor is perhaps the most difficult to counter, and yet the most important: the student’s own motivation.

Since many colleges — or scholarships — require or advise two years of some language, the classes end up being full of students. Many kids dislike language classes, which leads to the ultimate killer of learning: apathy.

• Talk to real people

Because there are students who don’t care about language beyond its implications for college applications, they don’t put in more effort than is strictly necessary to pass the class. This is not true of all students, but it’s a big enough problem to warrant a closer look at how to motivate students to put time into their language education. 

Although there is no end-all solution to the problem, teachers can help students in various ways.

One way is to expose students to culture and real people who speak the language. As the kids see how language plays a true role in the world (or possibly their future jobs) and how it can even bring them friends and more interesting lives, many students can be convinced that language learning is relevant to them personally, and thus spend more time becoming fluent in a target language.

Even knowing and seeing that the teacher really cares about the language can open doors. Whatever specific solution works for each classroom, the building block is to care, and show students why it’s good for them to care as well.

In the end, language is something that ties us all together. It is a primary way that we communicate, and in terms of careers, knowing another language provides another world of opportunities. It seems crazy that through learning another language we can open doors to millions of new friendships, unveil previously improbable prospects and, according to some studies, even keep our minds sharper.

So it only makes sense that if the system to learn these languages is flawed, it should be repaired. It’s much too high of a cost to miss out on language learning.

Sierra Clark is a junior at Venture High School. Email her at

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