Why Foreign Language Classes Fail: Teaching Methods

This is the second part following up on last week’s blog about the American school system failing to teach foreign languages in a way that results in fluent students.  I ended the introduction with the statement that it isn’t the fault of the students, but rather with the method in which they’re taught, so first thing’s first, let’s talk about what those methods are.

On the surface, foreign language classes are taught much the same way that English classes are taught.  Not necessarily high school English classes, which are usually pretty advanced and cover literature topics, but English classes from elementary school, which follows the logic that it’s an introduction to the topic.  And it seems like the thought process behind that is pretty solid.  Language is language after all, and it stands to reason that you shouldn’t teach one language differently than another, right?  Both are about communication with other people and understanding the underlying mechanics of that communication.  The vocabulary is different and they (often) have different mechanical structures, but that’s just a difference in material covered, not in method.

The big underlying problem with the thought process is, after thinking about it even a little, students go into English classes in the US already knowing how to speak English.  The purpose of an English class in school is not to teach someone English, that’s already assumed knowledge, it’s much more about fine-tuning the natural, dialectical variant of the language that someone already knows to bring it in-line with the standardized, academic form of the language.  Which is a reasonable goal to have.  Students are expected to speak and use standard English in formal settings, both in and out of school.  Whether the methods used in English class to do that are effective or not is a different topic (spoiler: it’s very debatable), but that is the intention, and looking from that perspective, the purpose behind the different teaching methods becomes clear.

Dialectical language includes lots of idiomatic expressions and informal speech, which often break the grammar rules of formal speech, or at least hide the rules down deep.  Teaching grammar helps someone recognize how to construct sentences in a formal setting.  Students are going to need to write academic papers for the rest of their school careers, so they’re assigned short, “practice” academic papers to get used to writing formally.  Clear pronunciation and diction are important for speaking in a formal setting, so they have students speak out loud.  The way English sounds and the way it’s written are worlds apart, and there is nothing less professional-looking than spelling errors, so they teach reading and spelling.  And they have tests regularly to measure progress.  A student comes in knowing how to speak the form of English they learned at home, and leaves (hopefully) knowing how to read, write, and speak standard English.

This is a bit of an oversimplification by necessity, but the logic of it holds water.  Languages are complex, and kids grow up imitating the language their parents use and what they hear from others/tv/movies/the internet/whathaveyou, and they end up making mistakes as they learn.  Schools then work to bridge the gap by explaining the things that don’t make sense and smoothing out the wrinkles, resulting in students who can use the standardized form of the language.

By contrast, a student walking into Spanish or French in high school is not walking in knowing how to speak dialectical Spanish or French.  They know how to speak English.  They may or may not be highly motivated to learn, and some students might know it as a heritage language, but the assumed level of knowledge walking in the door is “nothing.”  There’s no bridging gaps to get people to a standardized level of a language, because it’s all gap, they’re starting from square one.  So then, the fact that foreign language classes teach with grammar, speaking drills, practiced writing, assigned textbook reading, and quizzes starts to look a little ass backwards.

In a certain sense, you can still sort of see the logic in the approach.  The goal for the English course is to get a student capable of using standard English, the goal for a Spanish course would be the same, too.  If one works, the other ought to work, too, right?  They have different starting points, but that shouldn’t be insurmountable.  Everyone’s heard stories of the poor kids who get plopped into their first day of school not speaking the language classes are taught in at all, and those stories almost universally end with the kid becoming fluent.  It should work, shouldn’t it?

Well, the big difference there is that those kids are taught in their soon-to-be-fluent language in all their classes, surrounded by other students who all speak that language.  It’s a pretty hardcore direct immersion setting to be thrown into, and it seems foolhardy to assign credit to the language class.  Conversely, most foreign language classes here in the states are taught in English.  The textbooks are in English with English explanations for grammar filling out the bulk of the text, with the foreign language words and phrases relegated to little example tables.  The teachers speak English, explain the lessons of the day in English, and use the foreign language in isolated words and sentences, to be copied down and parroted.  Stuff that (debatably) works for students who already understand the language being discussed with the added benefit of having that same language be used to do the discussing doesn’t, and just can’t do the same thing.  That English class goal of closing gaps and smoothing wrinkles is a nice goal to have in teaching foreign languages, but it’s a finishing goal, something to do once there are gaps to close and wrinkles to smooth.  It’s no wonder hardly anyone graduates high school speaking a second language, their classes tried to show them how to build a house by picking out curtains, having never poured a foundation.

Understanding what they’re doing wrong leads to the question of how to do it properly.  As this continues to be a big topic, how I envision a language class ought to work will be the subject of a different blog.  I’ll drop a link to that in this space here once it’s available.

Now then, let’s look at the numbers for the week.

Tuesday 7/02

  • Duolingo: 24 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Breaking Bad, 3 episodes of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 7/03

  • Duolingo: 48 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 6 episodes of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, ~140 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 7/04

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 7/05

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of La Zona Zero, 1 episode of Wanton Art, 1 episode of Los Simpson, ~140 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 7/06

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of Los Simpson, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 7/07

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 4 episodes of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of Los Simpson, ~140 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 7/08

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11% of Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 4 episodes of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of Los Simpson, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 172 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 3/4 books, 420 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 20 youtube episodes, 1 podcast, and 11 tv episodes watched, 900 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 22 hours 0 minutes

So a nice and productive week switching gears into primarily watching and listening practice.  I didn’t cut out all of my reading time, I didn’t want to entirely drop it so I could keep up with my half hour daily of reading out loud, plus I’m enjoying the books I’m reading.  I started in on Los Pequeños Hombres Libres this week, which is another rather short one in the series, so I’ve been making relatively good progress despite the reduction in devoted time.  I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit so far.

In switching gears to watching stuff, I was left needing lots of things to watch, as I haven’t been making many plans for that sort of thing while focusing on reading, and mostly I’ve filled that time with a natural extension of the handful of things I do watch regularly.  Daniel San GMR, in addition to his main game review videos, has some Let’s Plays up on an alternate channel, and I’ve been watching through a few of those series this week.  I like Let’s Plays in general, and they tend to fill a lot of time, so it’s worked out well.

I also added a couple of new things to my watching rotation in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Los Simpson.  On the former, I am only familiar with Eva based on its reputation and have been meaning to watch it for … well, decades, honestly.  There was a big howdoyoudo about Netflix getting broadcast rights on it with new dubs and stuff, so it was in my head as something to watch, and they have a Spanish dub available, so it’s a perfect fit.  I’ve been enjoying it so far, I can understand its reputation for pushing boundaries in the context of when it came out.

For the latter, I’m very familiar with The Simpsons.  I actually tried to watch it in Spanish a long time ago, since before starting this blog, and was just totally left in the dark, it was far too complicated for me at the time.  I switched to easier things, like Puffin Rock, but never really went back to try Los Simpson again for some reason, I think I just logged it in my head as “try again way later” and didn’t have a mental reminder for ever getting around to that.

It’s funny, a while ago I had the desire to find a sitcom that I liked well enough to watch every day, which I could randomize and watch one or two episodes from the whole catalog per day, ostensibly forever, as there are lots of stories about people learning English because they got really into Friends or something and watched it daily, learning the language without even thinking about it, and stuff like that is what I’m trying to simulate in a shorter period of time.  I bemoaned the fact that what was available of sitcoms in Spanish on Netflix tended to be shows I hate (like Friends), whereas the few sitcoms I really like (Frasier, Seinfeld) were only available in English.  I watched That ‘70s Show for a while with that ‘watch some every day forever’ model in mind, but That ‘70s Show is just okay and gets old after a while.  Why I didn’t think of The Simpsons is anyone’s guess, because it’s perfect for that.  Even after this little heavy-watching experiment, I plan on following through and watching an episode a day for the foreseeable future.

Aside from those main additions, I’ve dipped into a few other things.  Other than the usual once-in-a-while things like No Hay Tos and A Series of Unfortunate Events, I watched another episode of Breaking Bad, which is a series I got about halfway through in English when it was on the air but never finished due to other stuff going on in real life at the time.  Watching it in Spanish would be nice, but it’s a bit of a drag rewatching this early-going stuff.  The problem is, I don’t remember it well enough to feel comfortable jumping in where I left off without feeling lost.  Eh, maybe I’ll get through it the rest of the way eventually.  I also have poked around on other bits of Spanish YouTube, watching some La Zona Cero when a new episode came out, and checking out a channel called Wanton Art.  I meant to do that a little bit more this week, but got distracted by Daniel San Let’s Plays.

I’d say that I’ll try and move that into the rotation more next week, but we’re gonna run into problems with that, because next week is going to be weird for me.  I’m going to be in Chicago from Thursday through Tuesday visiting family, and that’s going to have a really severe impact on my study time.  Obviously, I’m not going to be busy every waking hour or anything, so I’ll be getting some stuff done, it’s just probably going to be more reading than watching, and at a reduced focus.  I’m also entirely unsure that I’m going to have a standard-form blog ready to go next week as a result of the trip.  I’ll have something, I haven’t missed a week yet since starting this project and I don’t plan on missing one now, but it might be a post of just my numbers for the week without much else, depending on how much time I can scrounge up.  It would normally be una entrada en español, but that is definitely not going to be happening, I’ll save the Spanish entry for the following week when I actually have time to write it.

In the meantime, I gotta say it’s been a nice change of pace switching up my focus on listening.  It feels a little early to be making any claims about how helpful it’s been or not, though I will say that I feel a bit more confident going into listening.  I’d like to spend a bit more time devoted to heavy listening before coming to any conclusions, I’ll save that for an experiment post-mortem.  That aside, it’s been nice otherwise.  I was feeling a little worn down by all the reading I was doing.  I can find about 90 minutes worth of daily reading without even thinking about it thanks to the structure of my day-to-day, but going much beyond that requires making time, and I found myself putting that time off until later and later in the day.  It wasn’t really procrastination as such, it’s just that where it would have been better for me to sit and read for half an hour, I’d sit and read for fifteen minutes instead, and then I’d always be left playing catch-up in the last hour or so before I wanted to go to bed, which felt harried and stressful.

Watching things is a bit more controlled and finite in current-time-devoted and has been easier to carve out chunks and get it done earlier, which has been nice.  And it’s been a bonus that I’ve been liking the things I’m watching, they fit in nicely with my other watching junk goof-off time.  I don’t want to make any sweeping decisions about how I work until after I have a better idea of how useful/wasteful all this watching is, but if it makes sense, I’d like to be able to dial back my expected reading per-day a little and replace it with watching, on an on-going basis, just for the sake of my own daily enjoyment of things.  Maybe that opinion will change after a few more weeks of listening, we’ll see.

In Duolingo, I finished off the story section again and went back into the normal lessons, which … well, I was complaining about the stories all being really easy, and frankly the lessons aren’t that much more difficult.  Duolingo is, at this point, almost an entire waste of my time outside of answering questions on the forums.  Fortunately, I’m wasting a minute or two a day, so that isn’t a big deal.

As for the forum answering, my highlight of the week is, on a sentence that translated to, “My cousin hasn’t left yet,” someone asked what the difference was between “hasn’t left,” and “hasn’t gone.”  Which, in this instance, there is no difference, but I had to think through what differences they do have, because you can’t use them perfectly interchangeably.  Someone may have gone to the bank, but having left to the bank sounds awkward.  They may have left from home, though.  And having gone from home sounds odd, unless they were going from home to somewhere else and included that information.  And of course, saying, “I’ve left my job” might mean you’re on the way home, but it probably means you’re filling out applications and punching up your resumé, too.  We’ll also just ignore the fact that left is a perfect homonym with the word that means the opposite of right … which is a homonym with the word that means the opposite of wrong.  English is an abyss.

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

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