Why Foreign Language Classes Fail: Introduction

I can imagine so many stern glares from my old teachers over this blog...

While I don’t normally preface these blogs with the disclaimer I gave in the very first one, this blog feels like it’s especially important for me to open with the statement that I am not an expert on language learning.  I am not a professional tutor, I have no formal education in teaching languages (or other subjects for that matter), I have only a cursory level of knowledge on the study of linguistics, and I don’t speak a ton of languages to where I’ve “become an expert in the field.”  I’m just a person, a person who has spent the last year and a half learning Spanish, and is still working on that.  I’m learning how all this works as I go.  As part of that learning-as-I-go, I read studies and follow people who are experts at this, so I’m not coming from an uneducated point of view, but I am not trying to make any declarative statements from a place of authority.  I am also open to being wrong, because what do I know? I’m not an expert.

It’s interesting to me how poorly American schools do at teaching kids foreign languages.  It isn’t through lack of trying by any means, I took three years of Spanish in high school, most of which were required credits, and so did basically everyone else.  Required credits might be only two years, some schools offer different language options, and sometimes they start and offer classes at earlier ages, but my high school experience was not an anomaly.  American schools try to teach foreign languages.  So why is it that the overwhelming majority of people graduate school only speaking English?

Now obviously part of the problem is that lots of students don’t apply themselves in those classes.  Foreign language credits are required, and like all required classes, that means you’ve got kids sitting at desks for the attendance credit, turning in homework for the grade, and wishing they were at home playing video games for every second of time they’re in the class.  Plenty of people graduate school without having absorbed a lick of math or science, either, scraping through with fair enough grades but never working at really learning the material, because they just don’t care.

That’s going to be true for a lot of people sitting down in French or Spanish class, and you can’t really blame the school for a lack of fluent French or Spanish speakers afterwards.  I mean, you can blame the school a little, on a larger-scale structural level of schools in general, where teaching for standardized tests and sets of required courses and subjects encourage a work-for-the-grade-not-for-the-content approach to learning, but that’s its own whole can of worms.  No, the real problem is that for all the students in that foreign language class who are genuinely interested in learning the new language, and work and apply themselves toward following the classes and lessons, the same overwhelming majority graduate still only speaking English.

It was certainly my experience.  I can’t exactly claim to have been the best student in high school, I scraped by with middling grades and had to take a few courses over again because I basically never did homework, but I usually pulled good grades in classes that interested me.  I went through a good half dozen English courses throughout my time there with mostly A grades despite my homework allergy, and I pulled Bs and Cs in my Spanish classes, even going so far as to take three years of it, even though I only had to take two.  I kept hoping that the next semester would be when things started to kick in and I’d really understand the material, or that the things I’d learned up to that point would have accumulated enough that things started making sense without me noticing.  Those clicks never came, and after a sixth semester of trying and coming home with a big ol’ C on my report card and zero functional language knowledge in my head, I called it quits.  I tried, and it didn’t work.  I just assumed I must be “not good at other languages.”

And I really did try and want to learn from those classes, I’ve always liked the Spanish language.  It sounds nice on my ears, and I’ve had friends who spoke it at home through most of my life.  I should have been a natural.  Sure, I barely did enough homework to keep from getting yelled at, but I barely did enough homework in math or science class, and at the ends of those I was aware that I had learned the things we studied.  I listened during lectures and read the books.  It’s amazing how little homework you can get away with doing when you ace all the exams, you know?  So why did my learning routine for everything else have results, but with Spanish I was left with nothing?

I’m aware that’s all anecdotal, but it’s a narrative I’ve seen repeated dozens and dozens of times by other language learners and the people who are “impressed” by language learners.  “I must just not have the language gene,” and, “I suppose the only way to really do it is move to a foreign country,” are the two big ones you hear all the time, sprinkled in with some, “If only I learned when I was a little kid, I’m too old to learn another language,” for good measure.

And it’s true that moving to a foreign country and being forced trial-by-fire to learn the language through immersion will work (provided you don’t get stuck in an ex-pat bubble), it’s possibly true that some people are naturally more gifted at learning new languages than other people (which just means the less naturally gifted ones will take a moderately longer time, not that they can’t do it), and there’s some evidence that shows that after a certain age it becomes extremely difficult to fully eliminate an accent (though a mild accent is not a failure to learn a language), but frankly I think the common denominator isn’t the faults of the students, it’s the methods through which they’re being taught.

This is obviously a pretty big topic, as it took this long for me to just appropriately set the stage for it, so I’m gonna be tackling some of the specifics that I feel are handled wrong by the traditional school method of language instruction in future blogs, at least two if not more.  As I write those blogs, I’ll be coming back here and editing in some links to this part right here.

Part 2: Teaching Methods

Now then, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 6/25

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of El Asombroso Mauricio y sus Roedores Sabios, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Aggretsuko, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 6/26

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of El Asombroso Mauricio y sus Roedores Sabios, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Aggretsuko, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 6/27

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ronda de Noche, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 6/28

  • Duolingo: 22 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ronda de Noche, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 6/29

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ronda de Noche, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 6/30

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ronda de Noche, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 7/01

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Ronda de Noche, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 166 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 2/3 books, 1260 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 1 youtube episode and 2 tv episodes watched, 45 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 45 minutes

So a pretty decent week overall, nothing to complain about.  I finished off the new season of Aggretsuko early in the week, and am now sad, though I’ll admit I wasn’t quite as impressed by season 2 as I was of season 1.  It had some great parts to it, but there was less of an impact overall.  Not bad by any means, I just could have done with more than what was there.  I think the big thing was that season 1 had a much heavier focus on Retsuko’s work life, with her trying to balance that around wanting to keep her heavy metal karaoke hobby a secret, with then a hint of the complications of adult relationships toward the end of the season.  Season 2, meanwhile, was all about adult relationships, with a side story about her work life and a cameo of her karaoke hobby.  That and a lot of Retsuko’s agency felt like it had been taken away, with other characters being busy making decisions for her.  I dunno, again it wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t as thrilled about it as I wanted to be.  Hopefully season 3 hits the mark better.

I finished El Asombroso Mauricio y sus Roedores Sabios and it’s currently my favorite standalone book in the Discworld series, possibly favorite overall.  It hit a lot of really satisfying ideas and story notes for me, and it was one I put down totally happy with.  It was followed by Ronda de Noche, another City Watch book, which is one of the best in that subseries.  I’ve really been enjoying the hell out of these books, and the fact that I’m almost out of them is slightly alarming to me.

I’m also nearly out of the “stories” on Duolingo, finally, so I’m about to be switching back to the normal lessons for all the good that does.  I’m still in a holding pattern for Duolingo’s main uses as a tool, since dropping down my focus so much, but I manage to be on the site a lot anyway, answering people’s questions about English in the English-for-Spanish-speakers forums.  And since I don’t have a satisfactory way of counting the time spent on writing those explanations in these blogs, I thought something I might start doing every week would be to share a highlight of English’s weirdness from a question I answered, like I did as part of the main blog last week.

For the sentence, “The semester ends in December,” it was asked why the preposition was “in” as opposed to “on” or “at,” which leads to one of the bigger, “Wait … what?” elements of English: our prepositions are a mess.  Things happen in a month or year, but on a specific date or holiday, and if they happen in a week that means they happen a week from now.  You are also at the beach, but in downtown, and can be either at or in the airport or a Starbucks, but the latter more specifically means you’re inside the building.  And yet you’re on a plane, ship, train, or bus, but if you’re on a mall, it means you’re hanging out on the roof.  Some of these things seem to follow rules that have internal logic, but there’s almost always an exception.  And for Spanish?  All of those words (if they bother needing to have a preposition at all) are translated as en.  English is an abyss.

And as the month of June wrapped up, let’s look at those numbers as a whole.

  • Total Duolingo: 634 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 11 tv episodes, 8 youtube videos, and 2 podcasts watched, 340 minutes
  • Total reading: 6 whole books read, 5,040 minutes
  • Total writing: 1400 words written, 150 minutes
  • Total Speaking: reading out loud, 900 minutes
  • Total Time: 92 hours 10 minutes

And here’s the breakdown for money spent.

  • Carpe Jugulum, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $6.99
  • El Quinto Elefante, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $6.99
  • La Verdad, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.99
  • Ladrón del Tiempo, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $6.99
  • El Asombroso Mauricio y sus Roedores Sabios, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.99
  • Ronda de Noche, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $10.66
  • Netflix Subscription Standard HD Plan, Television and Movie Streaming, $10.99 per month, $10.99
  • Amount Spent on Fiction Books: $43.61
  • Amount Spent on Services: $10.99
  • Total Spent: $54.60

So a mostly normal month.  As June’s a day shorter than the average month, it’s always going to be a bit lower than the months around it, and it had a day that I had to give up as a mostly lost cause due to other stuff going on.  July’s going to suffer more in that regard than June did, so overall can’t complain.

The money spent’s a little unusual, because one of the books heavily deviated from the price range.  As it turns out, the ebook version of Ronda de Noche isn’t available on the American version of the Amazon site, for some reason.  You can buy the book in English of course, but that didn’t really help me, and they sold a Spanish ebook … in Spain’s Amazon.  So I, ah, fiddled with things and badabing, badaboom, I managed to buy a product that was for sale.  Amazing how that works.  The total I have here is converted from Euros, and shows that people in Europe are routinely skinned when buying ebooks.  Poor saps.

As for my writing for the month, despite starting off on a rough note, ended up being pretty great, with 18,293 words of fiction written, and 10,091 words for blogs, for a total of 28,384 words.  Which overall is better than May’s numbers by a little over a thousand words.  It’s a little lower than what I aim for per-day, but after starting off on a bad note, it’s pretty much perfect otherwise, and I don’t really hold myself to that aimed-for goal, it’s just an ideal.  If I’m this close to the ideal, I think things are overall going smoothly.  I doubt that July is going to be kind to my writing numbers in much the same way as my other numbers, since I’m going to be out of town and busy for a chunk in the middle, but I’m feeling good going into July.

Speaking of going into July, as I made mention of last week, I’m going to start the month off with a heavy watching/listening experiment.  I just finished a Discworld book and it’s just after the start of what’s going to be a weird month as is, so it seems like a good time for it.  Next week will show how I settle on going about that, but I’m planning on reducing my reading down quite a bit, and replacing what I cut out with watching and listening practice time.  The week after that is when I’m going to be in Chicago, so the experiment’s going to have to take a “break” of some sort while I’m gone, because I’m just not going to have that much free time, but by the end of July, I should get in a fair bit of watching and listening experience.  I’m really hopeful that a big bombardment of auditory content might be the push I need to drop some of my misgivings and hang-ups about my listening comprehension, and maybe I’ll be able to move into August ready to work on that yearly theme of mine more actively.  I suppose we’ll see.

Anyway, that’ll do for this one.  TTFN.

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