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What’s wrong with how schools teach languages?

Language learning in schools suffers from five main problems that in most cases make it very inefficient:

1. They use poor technique — Learning optimally happens when there is just a bit of struggle. 

Enough to make the brain work but not too much the learner can’t succeed without looking at the answer. Schools typically explain a concept once and then force you to fill out stale grammar exercises. 

This is not an efficient method because the gap between present knowledge and that required for the activity is too large, leaving the learner feeling frustrated.

2. They focus far too much on grammar — The majority of successful language learners will tell you to focus on speaking and reading more, as this time will actually help you learn the grammar better and faster than doing exercises.

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If you like grammar, you are free to focus heavily on it, though a lot of people do not.

3. They are not timed well — Learning languages takes a lot of time and practice, and languages require active usage and integration into your life in order to improve at a decent speed. 

The school format of spending a limited and segmented time with a subject while being completely isolated from it at other times is inefficient for languages.

4. They teach to a test — Your learning is determined by your own goals. Build your skills towards fulfilling that goal. 

Assess your own progress by thinking about how much closer you are to achieving it. Skills with grammar exercises help you succeed in tests — they don’t help much in the real world.

5. They can be overly structured — If you only study a topic for a few lessons then move on without a chance to continue to use and practise your new knowledge, you will find yourself gradually forgetting it all. 

Languages are best learned by actively using them, not segmenting them into a series of topics that need to be rote learned.

Further discussion

Let’s face it. Most students — no matter at which longitude or latitude they find themselves— are passive participants in their language classes.

These students expect their teacher to “deliver” the language, to magically transmit their knowledge and skill to them without them having to raise a finger. 

This is a result of the classic “teacher-centered” paradigm of learning, where the teacher is the main source of knowledge, and the students “orbit” around the teacher in an effort to obtain that knowledge.

Most experienced language learners argue that this is a false learning paradigm that does not reflect the realities of learning in everyday life. 

In the world outside of school, any learning is generally a result of initiative taken by the learner. 

In the teacher-centered model, however, all initiative is left to the educator, who decides, among other things:

– What to talk about

– Which material to use

– The learning method

– The speed at which students learn

Keeping initiative out of students’ hands can have a disastrous impact on the way students acquire language. 

From within this system, students see learning as the teacher’s responsibility, and do not develop the sense of agency that is so important to successful language learning.

One way to potentially solve this problem is for language students to realise that success in learning a new language will ultimately be their own responsibility.

A teacher should communicate this to the students from the very beginning, saying something like:

“Take language learning in your own hands. I am here to help, to facilitate, but you are the one who, in the end, have to make learning happen. Nobody can teach you a language. You and only you can learn a language.”  

In English there is a saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”

A teacher, especially now in the Internet era, should be a leader, facilitator, motivator, and content provider, showing the students how to “find water” even when the teacher will not be there to lead them to it.

For students to take responsibility for their own language learning will require them to be active and decisive decision-makers both inside and out of the classroom.

In the case a proactive student would choose to study at a language school, they should:

– Tell the teacher what they like

– Choose material from the internet on top of the material used in class

– Come up with ways in which they find learning efficient and enjoyable

– Decide their own speed of learning

To address this, students should brainstorm their intrinsic reasons for wanting to learn a foreign language, while teachers are to encourage students to come up with reasons that are personally motivating, and tied to their goals, passions, and interests.

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