Foreign language curriculums are ineffective

by Brenna Martinez , Staff Writer

Whenever the topic of high school language classes pops up in discussions, one statement gets thrown around nearly every time: “I took three years of the language and can’t even hold a basic conversation!” 

Students are quick to accuse their language teacher of being bad at their job or incompetent if they are not fluent or highly proficient at the end of their high school language studies. However, this experience cannot be tied back to a language teacher’s ability to teach.

The fact of the matter is that schools approach language education in the wrong way. We are taught foreign grammar concepts in our native language, tested on conjugations and drilled to repeat scripts — which, in the end, does not properly equip us to learn the language, as articulated by leading linguist Stephen Krashen.

The most important factor necessary in acquiring a second language is input. 

Input refers to the language information we receive from reading or listening to content with the second language embedded such as conversations, passages from books, movies, etc. 

Krashen proposes that we only develop a mental representation of a second language through input and the things we are explicitly taught about a second language in our native language will do next to nothing for acquisition. 

So, in other words, the hour-long lessons that were given to you in English about how the second language conjugates verbs, forms plurals and all other technical information did not help you to acquire the language.

Input is crucial to language learning and it is one thing our language classrooms lack the most. 

Just think about how many hours you actually get exposed to the language you’re learning in these settings. In most language classrooms, the instructor does not speak in the second language for the majority of class time. Even if they did, you would still only be receiving about four hours of input every school week, depending on how frequently that particular class period meets.

It can take hundreds of hours of input and study to reach basic levels of proficiency in a second language. If you dedicate time outside of the classroom to seek meaningful input, you could reach proficiency a bit faster, but the reality is that traditional classrooms are not designed for students to reach high proficiency in a foreign language due to time constraints. 

There are also other misconceptions about “self-studying” a language. 

Recently, interest in at-home language learning has increased with various blogs and Youtube videos circulating on “how to” learn a foreign language in a month. Some may think that this self-study route will help individuals reach fluency much faster than a traditional setting, but this is not the case.

Do not be discouraged if you were diligently dedicated to your Duolingo streak and found yourself not being able to hold a conversation after a month of daily use. To be clear, language classrooms or apps aren’t useless because they can serve as guides for deeper learning.

Every linguist will tell you that there is no shortcut to learning languages. 

Language is not a behavior that can be drilled — it’s something that requires time to build as a system in your brain. 

As long as you go into your language learning journey focused on experiencing comprehensible input while carving out time to practice — and remember that time is not something you can cheat — you will see success. 

Brenna Martinez is a junior studying linguistics and English.

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