Another way in which the teachers, rather than the learners, control conventional language teaching is through the frequent use of tests to evaluate learners.
For a variety of reasons, educational authorities find it necessary to try to objectively assess the language competence of non-native speakers.
For English, there are standardized tests which go by names like TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) and similar acronyms.
These tests may be a necessary evil for university entrance, or for job interviews, but in reality results in these tests are not a reliable indicator of language fluency. They should not become an obsession, and must never become the goal of language learning.
The best judge of your language competence is you, the learner. You know if you can read more easily, if you can understand more of what you hear, or if you are having an easier time expressing yourself. Paradoxically you will score better on these tests by acquiring a balanced ability in the new language rather than by just studying to pass these tests.
Too many language learners focus on doing well on these tests rather than on learning how to communicate comfortably. In preparation for tests, especially for the major standard tests, students will study word lists which are isolated from any content.
They will spend countless hours reviewing specialized books with grammar rules, lists of verbs, phrases, idioms and sample questions. They study the techniques for getting high scores on these tests.
In this way they pursue study methods that are inefficient and stressful. In the long run, an undue emphasis on getting a high TOEFL or TOEIC score can divert you from the real goal of achieving fluency in the language. The test is only an interim goal on your way to academic and professional success.
If you focus on test results without really learning the language, you are only fooling yourself. In the end you will not be able to use the language effectively.
There are no shortcuts. To be comfortable in answering most TOEFL and TOEIC questions, you need to become familiar with the natural flow of the language in many different contexts.
This can best be acquired through intensive listening and reading of a wide variety of interesting material while using a program that helps you remember new words and especially the most common phrases.
This kind of exposure to the new language in real situations, not studying grammar and word lists, is the fastest and most enjoyable way to learn.
In some countries, especially in East Asia, fierce competition exists for entry into prestigious schools and universities.
Foreign language ability is an important subject and school children are put through high pressure study programs to achieve good marks on national tests. There are cram schools with classes of fifty to seventy people.
It is impossible to learn to communicate in these situations. Teachers devote themselves to revealing how to get high marks in this examination hell. This kind of teaching usually ends up discouraging a learner’s interest in a new language.
Public school systems everywhere have been widely unsuccessful in teaching second languages. This has had a negative influence on language learning. Many potential language learners are conditioned to think that language is a tedious subject that has to be taught in schools.
Pretty much all students find theoretical explanations of grammar uninteresting and not an effective way to learn languages. They resist doing exercises and answering questions that test their knowledge of grammar.
Some of them later might discover that they learn faster through systematic exposure to the language than if they relied on formal teaching in a classroom environment. Sentence structures that were strange and difficult at first eventually will feel natural if you encounter them often enough in your reading and listening.
Occasionally consulting grammar books to answer questions that you have about the language is still a good approach. Sometimes the explanations will help and at other times they will not.
Much like when you look words up in a dictionary, you would usually remember grammar rules or explanations (if you understood them) only for a short period of time and then forget them. In the end it’s only through enough exposure to the language that your grammar will improve.
Good language learners are prepared to devote considerable effort away from class to listening and reading on subjects of interest to them.
This is the natural and enjoyable way to discover the language. You will develop your own systems for expanding your usable vocabulary, to ensure that you are able to retain words and phrases rather than immediately forget them if you don’t see them again for a few days. These methods will help you develop and grow as a language learner.
There are undoubtedly learners who are happiest in the structured environment of a conventional language classroom and who are comfortable studying grammar and preparing for tests.
Even those learners can benefit from a self-directed learning system. By customizing the learning process to suit their needs and interests, learners will find that their classroom language experience will be more effective.
In this way they will also make it possible for themselves to continue progressing in the language after the formal classes are ended.