Languages are not Learned in the Classroom
By Jon Aske
I have to get something off my chest, even if it sounds provocative. Languages are not learned in the classroom. Language courses can get you kick-started in learning a language or they can take you to a higher level of literacy through the study of literature or of the inner workings of the language. However, you are not going to acquire a language by just attending classes and doing your homework diligently.
You may think this is quite obvious, but I have seen many people behave as if that is all there is to learning a language. For example, I have students end up in SPN 101 every year who had taken years of high school Spanish who are incapable of putting the simplest of sentences together. Invariably, they tell me that all the did in high school is memorize vocabulary and fill out worksheets. At the other extreme, I have also seen students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a language who cannot be said to be Spanish speakers to any meaningful extent. All of this is quite sad, which is why I decided to share my thoughts with you (and let if off my chest).
What I am trying to say is that you have to have real-life communicative experiences in the language as part of its community of speakers in order to make you a speaker (and a listener, a reader, and a writer). You have to have many of those real-life experiences and for an extended period of time. There is really no other way.
Service courses help, of course, but not every language student takes service courses. Also, the usefulness of such courses is limited since they only actively engage you for a relatively small number of hours. Not only that, even if you end up taking such a course, one service course in a single semester is not going to make a big difference. Also, it is a well-known fact that your mileage may vary with regards to the value of your experience in such a course.
No, I think that if you really want to learn a language and if you really want to become a speaker of that language, you have to start acting like one. You have to make sure that for a significant period of time, your life is as full of language experiences as possible, as many as needed. And your immersion should be as much as possible in the absence of contact with your native language. Part-time immersion is good, but not as good as full-time immersion. You have to go for months not understanding everything that goes on around you, which is not easy.
Even if you study a language for years in the classroom, during your first few months of an immersion experience, you are going to understand something much closer to zero than to a hundred percent. And you may find it hard (that is, painful) to be at the communicative level of a child for a long period of time. Believe me, it’s tough. It’s like climbing a steep hill. After a while you may start thinking that you are never going to get to the top. But of course, if you persevere, you will get, if not to the peak, way past the base camp.
Actually, that is why learning a second language is so highly valued when you are looking for a job. It is often not so much that it can be useful to know the second language for doing your job. It is that employers know that chances are that someone who has put himself or herself through the experience of learning a second language as an adult is absolutely ready for anything. Such a person is very likely ready to deal with all the issues, people, and hurdles that they may encounter. It is not a guarantee, but it is a very good chance.
Also, when they say that learning a second language bestows you with all kinds of cognitive advantages and makes you a more flexible, well-adjusted, adjustable, and smarter individual, the kind that employers want to hire, they are not talking about those who have learned the language merely in a classroom with limited real-life experience. It is those months of communicating at a level way below what you’re used to and having to make an effort and persevere to communicate despite your limitations, confronting less than full success at communicating, that gives you those advantages associated with the acquisition of a second language. It is not the effort of memorizing vocabulary and irregular verb forms that gets you there.
Study abroad is one of the things we recommend to students to cure the inability to act like a true speaker of the language. That kind of immersion is truly important. But just going abroad is not enough. I have known of students who go abroad but whose major interaction with the language is inside a classroom, not outside, which is where the speakers are. Also, for some, the main interactions outside of the classroom are with people who speak English! Of course, going abroad under such circumstances is better than not going abroad, but to really get something special out of the experience, you have to immerse yourself in the culture and the language. I really think that there is no other way.
You see, there is a major difference between learning a language and learning other school subjects. Learning a language in the classroom makes about as much sense as learning to be a race car driver from a book or from a class, without ever getting into a race car. Or it makes about as much sense as learning to be a mechanic from lectures about how car engines work, without working on actual engines, or actually without working on engines for a much longer time than is spent in the classroom and reading about engines.
Actually, experts in all disciplines will tell you that you have to get beyond theory in order to really learn their craft, but I think a case can be made that when it comes to language, experience is even more crucial. That is why in language study, we distinguish between language learning, which is mostly learning about language, and language acquisition, which is what children do without any instruction before they even learn to read and write. There is nothing wrong with learning about language. In order to learn a second language as an adult, learning about the language can be a great help to jump start and speed up the learning. But in order to become a speaker of the language, you must acquire it and make it part of you. Otherwise, you will not get very far.
I should mention that I have also seen the opposite of what I have just described. I have had native speakers in my classes who didn’t seem to have learned much from these classes. These students perhaps figured they had already acquired the language as children and they didn’t seem terribly interested in learning much more about it, something that could take them to a higher level of literacy, for example. In theory, they might have liked to learn, but when push came to shove they didn’t seem to make the effort and they passed the class based on what they already knew. That is sad and I would like to think that most native speakers in my classes are not like that.
So, there you go. I have let it off my chest. Maybe this will inspire you to get serious about actually acquiring, not just learning, the language you are struggling with. It can be a very rewarding experience. I know from experience. But just in case you are not ready to make the move to another country just yet, do not fret, there are plenty of things you can do while you are still at school. For that, I direct you to my other article on this issue of Lingua Franca.