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Guest Post: Don't Force Language Learning

An outdoor language class.

I grew up in a small town in central New York; a small, conservative, God-fearing town full of white people who spoke English and were damn proud of it. I was eleven and moving from 7th to 8th grade - the point in which children in my district were expected to begin learning a foreign language- a terrible policy - at which time we were given the choice between Spanish and Spanish - French having been cut the previous year.

Going into 8th grade I was given the option to begin "accelerated" Spanish classes based on some arbitrary aptitude test that I have no real recollection of but I know didn't include any Spanish.

I was to be placed in a high school class that already had a year of experience with the language, surrounded by a class I did not belong to in a subject I didn't really even want to take in the first place, and a grumpy teacher who went to school to teach French, not Spanish and was unhappy about having her program slashed.

The ultimate lesson I took away was that forcing languages on people is typically not a very good strategy. I came away hating Spanish and stopped taking it as soon as I met my requirements. A decision I would come to regret several years later.

My first mistake was not starting at the beginning.

It's all well and good to take accelerated history, or accelerated math, but when it comes to language learning, diving in well over your head is not the most graceful way to go about your business, especially for younger learners who are easily turned off by adversity and are often predisposed to dislike classes of any kind..

I quickly found myself lost in a morass of conjugations, vocabulary that meant nothing and grammatical structures that would have been explained to me if I'd been present for the first year.

My second mistake was not taking the subject seriously

There is no greater a place to go in this country than my home town to see pasty pale white folks all speaking the same language - *hint* it's not Spanish. The ethnic diversity I grew up among is easily surpassed by the bovine diversity.

In short - nobody in my home town speaks Spanish, or at least they didn't 15 years ago - this has changed considerably since then, though I no longer live there.

One of the tragic curses of youth is our inability to see past our immediate situations and to visualize the bigger picture. I didn't strictly speaking hate Spanish, and I was far from the worst student, but I never really saw how it fit into my goals and aspirations.

After all, this is a monolingual country, right?


I ended up dropping Spanish after the two required years were met - a bummer really, I regret that today, but at the time I couldn't wait to be rid of it.

Through college, I had no real need of Spanish. My friends and I would compare our equally horrible year or two of high school Spanish from time to time, but in general we never really used it.

By this point, it was becoming abundantly clear to even those of us in rural, Northern US communities that Spanish was a thing. A really big thing and coming our way quicker every day.

Even still, it wasn't until I started working as a TESOL instructor and interacting with dozens of mostly monolingual Spanish speakers on a regular basis that I finally needed my rather limited and rusty Spanish skills in the practical setting I thought I'd never find.

Since then I've made a 180 degree change in my views towards foreign language study but I still hear from language learners everywhere that "formal classes just don't work for me!"

So, do formal language classes work?

Sure they do.

If they didn't we'd have stopped doing them by now. We just need to change our emphasis a little bit.

I'm convinced that the reason many - if not most - people don't succeed in high school, college or other formal classroom settings is because, once again, of a lack of motivation. Instead of spending so much time drilling vocabulary teachers should spend more time getting students interested in the language, its speakers' culture, and the benefits of knowing a second tongue.

When I was in high school nobody ever took the time to convince me that learning Spanish was worth the time of day. All I knew was that I didn't want to be there. Instead, it was just drill baby drill, rote memorization, homework assignments, note taking and longing for the bell to ring.

I don't blame the teachers either (usually), I blame a system that requires teachers to cram X amount of content into Y weeks or months in preparation for a test that will determine a student's future.

There's plenty of controversy over whether schools should be teaching for tests or not, the general consensus seeming to be that no, that's a bad idea.

I'm not in formal education, so I won't pass judgment on most subjects, but as a serious language learner, I can say that this is a terrible way to teach languages effectively and instill a sense of interest in our students.

Students need to be shown that the language itself, and the benefits that competency can confer are the prizes, not just a means to a grade. I suppose a similar statement could be made for education in general, but one does not learn a language the same way they might learn math or science.

We need to make language learning fun and meaningful and without placing as much fruitless pressure on students - or teachers.

Learners will learn at different rates and in different ways, and it is when we fail to recognize this that our students start to fall behind, lose interest and give up, resulting in a chronically monolingual society that not only can't speak a second language, but often decries those who do.

What was your experience with formal classroom language learning like? Are you a language teacher in a classroom setting? What are your thoughts?

Brian Powers is the creator and administrator for the blog and social media community Languages Around the Globe. He holds a degree in cultural anthropology from Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and has worked in TESOL administration. Brian lives with his wife and their son in Ithaca, New York and has studied Russian, Spanish and French. You can connect with Brian and LATG on FacebookTwitter and Google+

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