The Problem with Foreign Language Education

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people learn a foreign language the wrong way.  If the purpose of learning another language is to be able to effectively communicate with people of another culture, the most important thing you can learn is correct pronunciation.  Don’t get me wrong, grammar is important, but if you can’t pronounce “baño” no one is ever going to be able to direct you to the bathroom, even if you conjugate correctly.

Think about this: when you learn your native language (English for me) you learn by listening to people speak that language.  Your parents don’t sit you down as an infant and make you learn how to conjugate verbs.  As a child you learn language by observing those around you.  You learn words by repeating things you hear.  When babies start to speak, the emphasis is on vocabulary and pronunciation.  Parents know that their child will not be understood unless they can correctly pronounce the words they are learning, and to this end most parents spend countless hours working with their children on their pronunciation as they begin to speak.  There are even speech therapy classes for children who can’t properly form the sounds of their language.  When you learn your native language, grammar isn’t taught until you have built your vocabulary and can correctly pronounce the words.

So why do we learn our second language so differently than we learn our first?  So many language teachers focus so much of their attention on grammar, and students rarely get the opportunity to practice conversing with native speakers of the language they are learning.  I believe there are a few reasons for this.  First, schools and standardized tests put so much value on grammar, and teachers have no choice but to teach to the expectations of the administration and standardized testing.  Second, most foreign language teachers are not teaching their native language.  Let’s face it- very few Spanish teachers in the USA are native Spanish speakers, just as very few English teachers abroad are native English speakers.  The foreign language teachers themselves speak the language they are teaching with a definite accent, making it difficult to help their student with correct pronunciation.  Don’t get me wrong; there are some incredible foreign language teachers out there doing an excellent job of teaching a language that is not their first.  I had a fantastic Japanese teacher in high school who put so much emphasis on listening and conversation, and I credit my success as an exchange student in Japan to her exposing me to native speakers through movies, music and conversation with the Japanese exchange student at our high school.

The problem with learning grammar only comes when you go to a foreign country and attempt to speak the language you have been learning.  I have worked with so many exchange students who arrive in America with excellent grammar, but who can’t speak English.  They have learned how to read and write nearly perfect English and can correct the grammar of American students, but they can’t carry on a conversation because they have never learned to pronounce the words they can read and write.  Because they have never heard English spoken by a native speaker, they don’t understand the words we are saying, even if they do know the vocabulary.  They can read and understand the words written down, but they can’t understand the same words when spoken by a native speaker because they are not used to the correct pronunciation.

Years ago, Berlitz Language had a great commercial illustrating the importance of listening to native speakers when learning a language.  Even if you’ve seen it before, watch this short video- it cracks me up every time!

So what can language teachers do to help their students achieve maximum proficiency in a language?  In my opinion, the best thing to do is replicate the conditions under which you learned your native language.  Full and complete immersion in a foreign language is the best way to learn.  Teachers, find ways to expose your students to native speakers.  Watch movies, listen to music, bring guests into the class to speak to your students in that language.  Even if your students don’t understand the majority of the words in the movies, they are being exposed to native speakers and learning the cadence and sound of the language.  Never underestimate the power this has on language acquisition.  Take your students on field trips to the International District, or visit a Hispanic or Asian grocery store and require them to speak with native speakers.  Utilize the foreign exchange students in your high school, or the parents and grandparents of your students who have immigrated here and are native speakers of the language you are teaching.

Again, I’m not saying to scrap grammar completely, but students should feel comfortable conversing in the language they are learning (even more comfortable than they are conjugating)!  Because isn’t the purpose of learning another language the ability to effectively communicate in that language?

Foreign language teachers:  I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  What do you do in your classroom to expose your students to the correct pronunciation of the language they are learning?  Students:  do you have a foreign language teacher that stands out?  What did they do to help you learn to communicate in the foreign language?



Filed under language

6 responses to “The Problem with Foreign Language Education

  1. Little Sara

    One of my English teachers used to invite to her classes foreign teachers or students (most of them from Australia) so that we could interact with someone who actualy speaks English! Also she used to play a CD in which a couple of people had conversations and they had many different accents… Even indian! That way we could try to understand every single accent 🙂 I still remember the guy who talked with a texan accent… Hahaha

  2. Claudia

    Hi Sada,

    You are describing my struggle as a native speaker teacher. It seems that there is this delicate balance that needs to be followed. On the one hand, it is important that students learn the oral language functions, with a focus on vocabulary building on the one hand. But then there is the extreme a la Rosetta Stone courses where people would come out say “me want cookie” instead of actually being able to build a decent sentence. Yes, you would be understood if you pronounced the words correctly, but it still does not translate (no pun intended) to mastery of the language. On the other hand, like you said, grammar-only curriculum stunts oral proficiency. I tend to give my kids as many opportunities to use all of the modalities in the target language. Unfortunately, I cannot expose my kiddos too exchange students, because we don’t have them BUT we have some refugee students who speak the languages we teach, which is phenomenal. Our department money has been cut down to the point that the only field trip we can take is to the taco stand around the corner. We make do with what we have.
    I think that many language teachers are guided by whatever language acquisition theory they subscribe to, which is why the continuum you have identified exists. It seems to me most of the teachers may need to shift more to the middle. Oh, and it’s apparently very hard to find certified native speakers at teachers. I personally account that to the multitude of hoops people need to jump through to be a certified teacher in this country- those skills pay way better in the private sector, IMHO.

    • Claudia- thank you so much for your input! I clearly oversimplified things to illustrate my point, and no substantial changes can be made without a lot of considerations I failed to mention. For one, I did not include the added difficulties of teaching in a low-income school district, which leave no money for field trips or language aids. In districts like this it is still possible to expose your students to native speakers though videos and music, but it takes much more effort on the part of the teacher. And you are correct that the licensing requirements make it difficult for native speakers to teach in America, leading to students being taught by teachers who themselves are not proficient in the target language.
      There is clearly a lot of work to be done in this area. What led me to write this was the fact that so many exchange students come here and can communicate so well on paper but can’t understand when someone speaks to them. Learning the cadence and pronunciation of the target language is so important! I didn’t mean at all to lessen the importance of grammar- as you said “me want cookie” will not get you very far if your goal is fluency.
      Thanks again for all your input. There is a lot to think about, and my main goal in posting this was opening up some dialogue about language teaching/learning. Not being a teacher myself, I really value the input of you and other language teachers.

  3. Erin L Aukland

    What is so great about life experiences, is the ability to share them with others. In doing so we can make people laugh, cry, fall in love, fall out of love, hurt, and even heal. What you have done today by sharing, is teach me. Thank you, Sarah

  4. Sara-san, I have enjoyed reading your blog posts and congratulate you on a great beginning. You asked for feedback from language teachers, and paid me such a nice compliment, so I’ve wanted to share some of my thoughts on the subject of language acquisition. But being on the road a lot these last couple of months I’ve realized that while my cell phone might be fine for reading, as a “digital immigrant” it takes me forever to text more than a couple of sentences. (Subject for another blog entry?)
    This brand new grandmother is thinking back, and ahead to how we teach our kids language. With both grammar and pronunciation we do a lot of non-correcting correcting. When we hear our 2 year old say, “I goed to the store with Gwanpa,” rather than responding with a discussion on irregular verbs, or drilling them on the difficult contortions for pronouncing the letter R, a parent will likely say, “Oh, you went to the store with Grandpa? What did you buy?” If standard language is spoken at home, or on the playground, both take care of themselves unless there is a specific speech problem.
    There are a number of reasons that we language teachers cling to a grammar-based approach. First of all, a lot of us got into the “business” because we really like grammar. Even knowing from research that only about 20% of language students benefit from the explicit teaching of grammar, I we light up talking about the 22 forms of the English verb “to be” or the different rules for Japanese TE verbs, hoping to find those few students who will think it’s as cool as we do.

    The next reason for a grammar based approach is that our texts are organized around grammar (as well as topics). With the few exceptions of chapters dealing with introductions and idiosyncratic vocabulary thrown into other chapters, texts build from simpler to more complex forms and text exercises tend to want to reinforce literal meaning, sometimes as the expense of authenticity. A classic example in Japanese is A: Sore wa nan desu ka? (What is that?) B: Kore wa pen desu.(This is a pen.) – a stilted exchange which would not likely exist outside a foreign language classroom. Texts are getting much more authentic, but with the compressed time frame of a language class vs years of 14 hour a day language “lessons” in our first language, the randomness of truly authentic language can be hard to organize into a manageable curriculum, and in many ways harder to learn as well.

    But finally is a particular dilemma of the non-native language teacher. Venturing into the world of natural speech is a minefield. Some word we learned when we were in Japan decades ago may come across sounding like “groovy” today. Both expressions that have been around for a while, and those which are new require a knowledge of who, when and where to keep one from sounding like a total doofus. My most uncomfortable task as a Japanese teacher came when I was asked to teach the advanced lesson to a group of kids at the immersion camp. The goal was for them to learn business telephone conversation in an authentic situation. I was asked to find and pre-contact a bunch of Japanese businesses that would agree to participate in a later conversation with American students, then to come up with appropriate questions to teach the kids for each business. I realized quickly that I didn’t know the correct terms in Japanese for “booking” a flight or “holding” a video, not to mention the best level of formality for a young American teenage customer talking with an older Japanese business person serving them….in America…on the phone. I had to lean a lot on the native Japanese teachers who had their own tasks.
    That said, all teachers, native and non-native can work to make more authentic listening and speaking activities central to their lessons. But non-native teachers, (or older native teachers), have a special responsibility to work to keep their knowledge of new language patterns up to date, and, as you pointed out, to use music, videos and interaction with native speakers as a critical component in their teaching. And the best way to use those resources? Back to you and your readers!

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