Language learning

Language learning at school needs an overhaul

Image courtesy of chrissam42 on Flickr

Image courtesy of chrissam42 on Flickr

It’s no secret that school language classes suck. I’m yet to meet someone who finished high school and had any sort of proficiency in the language they’d spent the last six years ‘learning’. If I had anything to do with it, the way we go about teaching kids languages would change dramatically.

I don’t know how anyone thinks an hour of two of language class a week is doing anyone any good.

If you’ve spent six years on classes, regardless of the fact that most people don’t realise how bad they are, you expect to get something out of them. Yet time and time again we find people finishing school knowing no more than how to count, a few greetings, and usually a few swear words.

These people often then think that they’re ‘just no good at languages’. No! They’re wrong!

It’s the schools that are no good at languages!

Think about that for a second. Why does the blame always fall on the student? Most school kids do everything that is expected of them. They go to class and do their homework. They shouldn’t have to do extra work outside of class to get to where the class should take them!

If I were Education Minister…

If I were education minister or had any sort of power, I’d get rid of the traditional language classes at school. I’d introduce classes about languages in general. They would teach about different language families and why languages are important. They would have a semester each of lots of different languages and then around year 9 each kid could choose a language to study intensely for the last three years of high school.

What would this do?

Kids would gain knowledge in lots of different areas. They would be able to make informed decisions about what they want to study. They would come to classes with background knowledge like where the language is spoken, why that language is important/different/really cool. A basic prior knowledge of different types of languages would help them pick the one they liked the most, or had the most affinity with, or was spoken where they most want to visit.

Even if a kid did not have ‘success’ in the traditional sense – which is usually defined as a near-native like level of fluency – he would be equipped with the right skills and mindset to tackle a different language later. Which I think would make a world of difference to the amount of people in Western countries who can speak multiple languages. Everyone seems to agree that learning another is a good idea but everyone has an excuse – not enough time, they’re too old, they don’t have the ‘language gene’. If everyone knew how to tackle language learning, imagine how much richer we could collectively be.

What do you think of my plan? How would you change things if you had the power?

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2 thoughts on “Language learning at school needs an overhaul

  1. All I have to say to this is AMEN SISTER. Language teaching in schools definitely needs to be revamped.

    Admittedly, I’m not sure how I’d personally revamp it, assuming I had the power to do so. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Finland’s education system, including the way foreign languages are taught there. Children start learning very early and eventually have some classes taught in the language itself – for example, a history class taught in English, even though the students’ native language is Finnish.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it sounds like a good idea. Though that would mean that students would have to choose a foreign language relatively early. In Finland, English is the obvious choice (because it’s so widely spoken and so important in the world today). For native speakers of English, the choice is not so clear, unfortunately.

    • Yeah, that would have to be so helpful. There are schools like that in most countries I’m pretty sure, but they are rare. I always say I wish I’d gone somewhere that did that so I’m not sure how it slipped my mind while writing this! Thanks for reminding me!

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