Join almost 1 million
monthly
readers!

Contact Me

Coaching and Consultation

Language Hacking League!

Join over 50,000 people to get FREE weekly language hacking tips, cool links, site updates & two free chapters of the Language Hacking Guide!

No Spam. Not ever.

Current Mission:


Coach a monoglot in her first ever successful language learning mission! Learn more!

Previous post:

Next post:

Back to school! Some small changes to classroom learning that will make a dramatic difference

| 32 comments | Category: learning languages

It’s September and people are going back to school and are learning languages inside classrooms again.

I think it’s time for me to open up this pandora’s box and discuss why I don’t think classrooms work for language learning. Of course, the classroom itself isn’t the only problem so rather than argue for the sake of it, I’ll offer my suggestions for how it could work.

Sometimes one person (the teacher) needs to present the information to many, and budget and travel restrictions means you can’t get around this. But the way that many (luckily not all) classrooms operate involves too many flaws to produce any useful results other than impressive scores on sometimes worthless tests.

This is both the teachers’ and the students’ fault of course, as well as the fault of the system they are trapped in.

My most recent classroom buzzkill

I could complain endlessly about how ten years learning Irish gave me nothing more than a splattering of words that, the results of which I technically could have learned in less than five minutes, and of course how I was scratching my head wondering where all time went after “five years” of German didn’t even help me to buy a train ticket in Munich. But it’s just as useful to look at my most recent classroom experience.

You would think that now that I have successfully learned several languages, and like to convey my enthusiasm to everyone I meet and on this blog, that nobody could shoot me down when I try to learn a language. I can proudly say that I am almost invincible to pessimist remarks online and in person, and make fast progress because of it.

Despite my confidence, one thing did manage to kill my enthusiasm recently: a classroom. I tried out some group classes of Hungarian (for a change) a few weeks ago and left each time hating the language and wondering why I was even trying to learn it. Luckily I got over this quickly, but even at my current stage in language learning I am still not immune to classrooms’ energy-sucking power.

So, based on years teaching languages myself and seeing what works most effectively, ten years of my own wasted language learning and seven years of productive language learning, I think I have a pretty good idea of several things that are causing the problem. This isn’t just what I think – research is showing that traditional learning and studying methods are simply just wrong.

What the teacher can do differently

OK, enough complaining – it’s time to change things. Somehow I doubt any school board is reading this, but just in case, based on my experience of what actually works to get people speaking quickly, this is what I would suggest doing differently:

  • Find a way to motivate students. English is learned well in many countries out of necessity (professional & otherwise). English speakers don’t feel this same pressure for other languages and that’s a huge game-changer. I also found this in Spain with many Spaniards feeling they don’t really “need” to speak English – English has little influence in Spanish life. How you motivate your students depends a lot on the situation. With lack of long-term motivation there is a good way to motivate students in the short-term:
  • Make it about speaking!! You can tell me to change the record all you like, but a language is a means of communication. When you drown your students in grammar lessons, you may be following the curriculum but they will only see the language as grammar. I can honestly tell you that I saw Germans as nothing more than dative-accusative robots based on my classroom experience, and that’s very different to how I view them now. A language involves people chatting to one another. Get your students to speak and encourage them when they do that, rather than focusing on their mistakes so they don’t want to try again or feel even more embarrassed.
  • Speak to them only in that language. What’s even worse than talking about grammar and repetitive exercises is doing so in the wrong language. This just reinforces the mentality that the target language isn’t really a language at all. This keeps it academic – but help your students with at least a little sprinkling of “repeat” “write it down” or whatever to get started and quickly immerse them with the class mostly in that language. The pressure will lead to a necessity.
  • Make it relevant to them! Why would a ten year old want to know how to ask for directions?? Teach them how to play their computer games and how to use Facebook & status updates in the target language. I taught my students how to write a text message in English, with all the shorthand and that kept their interest and one student told me that he started writing all of his text messages in English (even though he didn’t need to) because of it!
  • Coming from that – teach the language how it is actually spoken by young people. Formal language may help for business trips, but to make a language more real you need it to work at the social level. I have used the formal “you” and other similar terminology in French and German less than 1% of the time compared to the informal one, because I spend most of my time with friends, not strangers. Keep a language at arms length and it will stay there.
  • Ditch grammar terminology. Grammar does need to be taught, but do it in the right context, with more emphasis on the examples than the explanations. All the focus on grammar reminds students how hard a language is and this doesn’t help at all. If you encourage them about how straightforward it really is, that will inspire them to make quicker progress. And try to change the focus away from too much grammar because…
  • It has to be interesting! This is by far the worst problem with many classrooms and why I think some non-traditional teachers do it better. Make it seem less like a classroom – sit down with your students, turn the tables around into circles, play games and chat to them about how their weekend was in the target language. Make it interactive and get them to participate as much as or more than you would be speaking. If you are doing all the talking, you’ll turn them into passive-hearing zombies.
  • Make sacrifices. Some teachers I have met have their own agendas and aren’t entirely focused on helping the students. You might be a grammar-junkie, or like teaching in a particular way. But think to yourself if this is really helping your students ultimately reach a level of being able to speak the language better now? Make some decisions you may not want to make and your students might even thank you for it.

If the curriculum says you can’t do this, consider this: if you could spend 9 months drilling boring material into reluctant learners’ heads or six months inspiring a passion to learn the language in many imaginative ways, while always learning and improving, and then three months preparing for the inefficiently prepared exams, which do you think will really produce the best results?

Using talent as an excuse is not helpful. The subjects students receive the best results in are those they are most interested in. You can’t splice your students’ genes, but you can inspire interest. Working on genuine interest and passion may seem like an oblique way to ensure they get As, but it will ultimately produce the best results.

Inspiring passion in the language will make the results of technical things like grammar and vocabulary naturally improve. And they might even be interested to hear a technical grammar lesson if it helps them communicate better with the language they are now hopefully eager to improve on.

What the learner can do differently

If you are a frustrated learner, and have never had to work for an academic institution (that do unfortunately have silly rules they have to follow for bureaucratic reasons), and were nodding your head through all of that, don’t think I’ll let you off so easily! ;)

Blaming the system and the teachers is very easy, as finger pointing always is. But learners have a huge amount of responsibility in this and it’s as much their fault as the classroom they are blaming.

In my recent example above, the fact of the matter is – other students got a lot out of the classes that I wasn’t enjoying. And many students do leave classrooms with an ability to communicate somewhat in the target language. I can whine all I like about how it wasn’t the way I would teach and daydream about a utopia with perfect classrooms, but sometimes you have to work with what you have got. If it is working for some, then maybe you’re the problem!

One of the biggest things you can do is accept that maybe you are not in the right frame of mind yet to learn in this environment and try to change that.

There are so many things I could have done differently to get an A in my original studies in German, and to get the best out of my recent classroom experience, and coming from that, if you are attending classes I would suggest the following:

  • Don’t think under any circumstances that purely attending will lead to any results. You can “attend” classes for years and learn nothing. I feel this is the main problem students have – I went there and sat in lectures – surely I should know this stuff? You have to put the work in yourself. Leave it all up to your teacher, and even the best teacher in the world can’t help you.
  • Listen attentively to the teacher/audio and do the homework well. While I love fighting against the man, sometimes it’s way better to work with the system and take advantage of the opportunity to learn that you have before you. It may not be perfect, but think of it as a friend with minor annoying flaws. Ignore them and see the good side of it! Even traditional classrooms can offer a lot when you dive into them enthusiastically.
  • Stop reminding yourself how boring and hard the material is and try to enjoy it. Appreciate your minor achievements rather than just seeing the end goal.
  • If the classroom isn’t working for you, be independent when not in the class or doing homework. Seek out your own learning materials and efficient learning methods, find natives to practise with, and do your own exercises and your own vocabulary learning based on what you want to learn. This can only have a positive effect on your enthusiasm and thus your results back in the classroom.
  • Try to merge the classroom environment with your own learning approach. For example, study the vocabulary lists you are given using SRS, talk to the teacher during and after class in the target language (kiss-up remarks be damned!) and do whatever else works for you.
  • Stop comparing yourself to the other students (I speak better German now than all of my classmates who would have gotten As and Bs, compared to my C – how’s that for some perspective?) and even though the system focuses on your mistakes, keep your eye on all the progress you are making.
  • Don’t forget the advantages that classrooms have to independent learning – the other students! Ask the A-student how he/she is doing it, and for some help. Study with your friends from the same class and help one another and talk to the teacher if you have problems.

At the end of the day, this support is something you don’t have when you are in a strange country by yourself and that can be the biggest help of all. Take advantage of it and you’ll see that maybe the classroom isn’t that bad after all.

——————–

Going back to school? Feel any of this could help? How would you improve the classroom? More importantly (since you can do something about it) how would you improve your experience of the classroom? Let me know in the comments below!

And don’t forget to share this post on Facebook so that other struggling students might get some inspiration!

***********************

Enter your email in the top right of the site to subscribe to the Language Hacking League e-mail list for way more tips sent directly to your inbox!

If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.

This article was written by

Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them :)
Just keep in mind that I’ll delete any rude, trolling, spammy, irrelevant or way off-topic comments. Also, use your REAL name, not a brand or business one, and don’t link to your site in the comments unless it’s relevant to this post.
If you have a general language learning question, please ask it in the forums. Otherwise please use the search tool on the right for any other question not related to this post.

———————————–

  • WC

    I think these are pretty good points.

    I’d like to especially not the grammar bit about not using grammar terminology. I’ve been looking at grammar and seeing things like ‘present imperfect’ (I made that up. Is it legit? Probably!) and I have no bloody clue what it means in English. There’s no way I could know what it means in a foreign language. (And I always aced English in school.)

  • WC

    I think these are pretty good points.

    I’d like to especially not the grammar bit about not using grammar terminology. I’ve been looking at grammar and seeing things like ‘present imperfect’ (I made that up. Is it legit? Probably!) and I have no bloody clue what it means in English. There’s no way I could know what it means in a foreign language. (And I always aced English in school.)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I know what it is and I can assure you it hasn’t helped me in one bit in my language learning adventures…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I know what it is and I can assure you it hasn’t helped me in one bit in my language learning adventures…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Great to see you making progress Polly :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Thanks for the compliment! :)
    Both bars have minimise options (arrows). Use them and you won’t see them in future. For the moment they’ll stay for most people because they help site navigation and other options to keep people on the site longer.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Excellent idea!! That’s the kind of forward thinking we need in the education system :) Those chatting programs are where a lot of people do most of their “writing” – NOT formal letters.
    To harness oral communication skills I’m sure you’ll come up with something :) You could use Skype, but there’s no need – it’s always better in person. Usually something that doesn’t focus on the actual speaking, like arguing a philosophical etc. point is a good idea.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Excellent idea!! That’s the kind of forward thinking we need in the education system :) Those chatting programs are where a lot of people do most of their “writing” – NOT formal letters.
    To harness oral communication skills I’m sure you’ll come up with something :) You could use Skype, but there’s no need – it’s always better in person. Usually something that doesn’t focus on the actual speaking, like arguing a philosophical etc. point is a good idea.

  • http://twitter.com/MartijnL1985 Martijn

    Although I do agree that motivation and interesting lessons are key in learning a new language, I don’t think that it is (almost) impossible to achieve some kind of fluence in a foreign language in school situation. In fact, that same school situation is what made it possible for me to understand and react to your blog at all. I learned 3 foreign languages (english, french and german) in secondary school and I would say that I achieved quite a good level of understanding in all three.

    I always was highly motivated to learn a language, so I agree that motivation is absolutely necessary, but it not impossible to be motivated (and learn something!) in a classroom situation. Don’t dismiss it because it didn’t work for you.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Martjin, I’m afraid you will need to brush up on your English a little because I wasn’t dismissing classrooms or suggesting in any part of the article that classrooms don’t necessarily lead to fluency. You have totally misunderstood the point of this article, as I am not telling people classrooms have no potential.
      Congratulations on the level you reached in your languages, however many people aren’t so lucky. Also note that this article is directed mostly at English speakers learning foreign languages.

  • Anonymous

    First post of yours I haven’t really agreed with.

    The main reason for this is I think that classroom learning of a language can’t be fixed. Especially classroom language learning when you aren’t living in the country of the target language.

    The reason is that nothing, but nothing can overcome the totally artificial situation of it. Students need motivation over and above getting high grades.

    I certainly don’t agree with speaking to them only in the target language when the learners are beginners. I had a teacher who tried to do this once, it was worse than useless.

    The only thing the teacher can do, IMVHO, is to try to enthuse the students with the language somehow. With a disparate group of say 20 students, that’s a pretty tall order.

    Having said that, I however, agree with the second half of the post. For a student who is in a crappy classroom situation, it’s the stuff you do outside the class room that makes a difference. Doing the homework helps a lot.

    What a diligent student is better doing, is trying to find their own materials and then use the classroom time to add to knowledge, e.g. just use it to pick out particular constructions or phrases they are having trouble with.

    Someone doing this will eventually find that they are much more proficient learners by themselves and the time spent in the classroom is wasted.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Paul that sounds all great and all, but some people require a classroom environment to learn and there are indeed many success stories (way less than there should be though). Since I was previously an English teacher I know what works and speaking the target language is definitely one of them. Of course there are many ways to do this wrong so I’m sure your teacher was approaching it entirely the wrong way.
      I have many criticisms for classrooms, but still a lot of hope for their potential, and they can definitely be “fixed” to help people who can’t travel yet.
      I agree that learning by yourself holds some of the best potential, but many people aren’t that motivated and need help. Following the advice in this post, I think classrooms could be extremely useful tools for serious language learners, even though right now many are wastes of time.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Paul that sounds all great and all, but some people require a classroom environment to learn and there are indeed many success stories (way less than there should be though). Since I was previously an English teacher I know what works and speaking the target language is definitely one of them. Of course there are many ways to do this wrong so I’m sure your teacher was approaching it entirely the wrong way.
      I have many criticisms for classrooms, but still a lot of hope for their potential, and they can definitely be “fixed” to help people who can’t travel yet.
      I agree that learning by yourself holds some of the best potential, but many people aren’t that motivated and need help. Following the advice in this post, I think classrooms could be extremely useful tools for serious language learners, even though right now many are wastes of time.

  • Annette

    You make a lot of really good points. One thing that has really helped my language-learning progress in the last several years is taking responsibility for my own learning. When I started German in university, I had a GREAT teacher and I learned a lot from her and from subsequent teachers. I diligently did my homework and took some responsibility for my progress but I think I really learned to step up when I started learning Italian. My experience in the Italian classroom was the opposite to what I had in the German one. Like you said, the class had a feeling of focusing on mistakes, not progress, and was just full of grammar and drills and not focusing on the fact that this is a REAL LANGUAGE that people SPEAK everyday! I knew I wasn’t going to learn much from that class and so I made a huge effort to find a way to really learn on my own. I believe I have been quite successful and now, only a year after I first started learning the language, I get lots of compliments on my Italian! I certainly wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have had I relied solely on attending classes.

  • http://chitchatchinese.wordpress.com Chit-Chat Chinese

    Hi Benny,
    You talk about the need for “passion” for learning and “motivation”, agreed both help, but there is one key ingredient I see in all the successful language learners either in my school, or self-taught that I meet in my free language groups (meetup.com): discipline. Yes, the lessons need to be taught in a learner-centered way, in the target language and with the focus being on speaking. But the key thing is the student needs is to show up for class, do their studies and find opportunities to use the language outside of class. If the person speaks other languages and can do this on their own, without the guidance of a teacher, great as well. But they have to have the discipline to do it. One retired woman who is taking Mandarin in my language school is a classic example. She started Mandarin 8 months ago, comes for just a once a week class. I subbed the class the other day and got to see first hand how fluidly conversation she is (at an intermediate level). Amazing for an older learner, who only speaks English, starting this language in her 60’s. She has been very disciplined, never misses class, spends the time outside of class learning her vocabulary, dialogues and listening to her audio material. And voila! less than a year later she can hold a solid authentic conversation with me without looking at her textbook or other prompts.

  • Joe Ely

    What you’ve described is simply the communicative approach, and while they may not have used it in your school, it has been tried in schools, and it hasn’t worked.

    Why? Well…

    ” * Find a way to motivate students. ”

    Every teacher tries to motivate students, but sometimes it can’t be done. TEFL teachers have the luxury of a class of highly-motivated “volunteers” to start with, but most classrooms are full of “conscripts”. Unfortunately, no-one really knows how to motivate students.

    ” * Make it about speaking!! You can tell me to change the record all you like, but a language is a means of communication ”

    Yes, and this is a problem more than a solution, because in most cases the students are better able to communicate in their own language, so…

    ” * Speak to them only in that language. ”

    …you end up presenting the language you’re teaching as a barrier to communication rather than a means of communication.

    ” Get your students to speak and encourage them when they do that, rather than focusing on their mistakes so they don’t want to try again or feel even more embarrassed. ”

    ” * Make it relevant to them! ”
    ” * It has to be interesting! ”

    This is something that all teachers try, and many fail. This is why the maths books when I was at school were full of twee little stories about Sally and Johnny sharing sweets. Teachers trying to pick relevant or interesting material often end up looking like dads trying to be cool.

    ” why I think some non-traditional teachers do it better. ”

    You might want to have a read of this.
    http://web.archive.org/web/20080208190123/webh01.ua.ac.be/didascalia/mortality.htm

    It’s a brilliant written lecturer given by a renowned academic that thoroughly busts the myth of there being such a thing as a “traditional teacher”.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      “it has been tried in schools, and it hasn’t worked.” – great, so a few schools did what I’m suggesting wrongly. Let’s give up on the idea entirely!
      “Every teacher tries to motivate students” – no they don’t. Some teachers lose their own motivation and just show up on the job and want their students to get As – the purpose of what they are teaching gets lost.
      You seem to misunderstand what is going on in the TEFL world because there are many students that simply do not want to be there, like in other classes. Just because their parents are well off, doesn’t change much in the head of the actual child learning a language. There are also TEFL classes with large numbers of students.
      “you end up presenting the language you’re teaching as a barrier to communication” – the barrier is put up when you put the other language in an academic light of not being useful for immediate communication. Use it or lose it.
      You are exaggerating the work “all” teachers do. If my suggestions were tried efficiently they would work. I have seen them in action in various forms in successful classes.
      Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out.

      • Joe Ely

        “so a few schools did what I’m suggesting wrongly. Let’s give up on the idea entirely!”

        I’m not talking about a few schools, I’m talking about the mainstream of language teaching. Communicative Language Teaching was the current “big thing” when you and me were in nappies. It was tried extensively, and it failed. It caught a second wind through the boom in the TEFL industry, due to the fact that it can be done by minimally-trained native speakers with no knowledge of their students’ languages, and because it can be done with mixed-nationality groups.

        Of all the things you’ve said, the most important is motivation, but it’s also the most elusive. If you can teach teachers to motivate students, you will make a fortune hosting seminars, because right we don’t really know how to do it. Some people can, some people can’t, but nobody is quite sure why.

      • Joe Ely

        PS
        “You are exaggerating the work “all” teachers do. If my suggestions were tried efficiently they would work. I have seen them in action in various forms in successful classes.”

        But your definition is tautologous. Good learning is motivating and interesting. Bad learning is demotivating and boring.

        Motivating and interesting learning works, demotivating and boring doesn’t.

        But “be motivating and be interesting” isn’t particularly insightful if you can’t tell someone HOW to be motivating and interesting.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          “It was tried extensively” – sorry but I don’t believe you. Maybe a few schools tried it and presented it in a way that wasn’t beneficial to students. If you have some kind of statistics showing that 30% of schools nationally in some country tried communicative approaches and it failed that would be more convincing. But your “extensively” sounds like it actually means one or two.
          “be motivating and be interesting isn’t particularly insightful if you can’t tell someone HOW to be motivating and interesting.” – I can’t solve all the problems in the world. As I suggested, this depends largely on your students and your situation and the teacher has to be the one to figure out what works best. If you want a one-size-fits-all solution (like the current non-communicative educational system focuses on) then that’s just lazy.
          So I’ll repeat again: “be motivating and be interesting”. Just because an immediate solution to that isn’t provided doesn’t mean you can’t find one.

          • Joe Ely

            I’ll admit that I have no statistics, but I trust Wilfried Decoo (the link I gave). He describes the communicative approach as the predominant language learning philosophy from the 70s to the mid 90s. At the time he gave the article, he thought it was on it’s way out, but it’s back….

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            OK, well I don’t know Wilfried Decoo so I don’t trust he applied my suggestions efficiently or extensively enough to dismiss communicative learning in any way.
            So, I dismiss your dismissal ;)

  • http://corcaighist.blogspot.com Anonymous

    As with anything we learn by doing. We learn chemistry by doing experiments. We learn geography by studying the landscape. We learn languages by speaking them. Because we are unfortunately forced to learn/teach languages inside the classroom teachers will continuously try and make classrooms more interactive and fun. However, it can be difficult to do this whilst juggling the demands of the syllabus and administration in terms of grades, reports and so forth. In a utopian world the classroom environment would only be a back-up and a reinforcement of what the students would learn out the classroom. Sadly we don’t live in this world and so language classes are always invariably (on their own) never going to get people speaking a language.

    Nice post and ideas.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks! Glad you liked it

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    That’s great! Your certainly lucky to have such a good Chinese teacher!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Agreed. I had a terrible experience with foreign language classes in high school and an even WORSE experience at university that I will never forget. I’m not a big fan of institutionalized education in general, the best it can produce is mediocrity, and that’s just pathetic.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Jjrowley

    Interesting stuff. I read the NYT article and something in there about learning different things/approaches at the same time prompts me to ask a question: Do you think it is Ok/better/worse to try to learn more than one language at a time? Any thoughts?

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    I have always been hesitant about studying languages at university, for precisely the reasons you mention. However, I recently decided to go back full time for a year studying Czech. So far, I am surprised with exactly how well it is working. The general idea of the school (Charles University in Prague) is that you teach yourself Czech, but the classroom gives you an environment to practice very intensively.

    The particular group I am in only has 3 students – and we are only allowed to speak Czech the whole time. The focus is entirely on conversation, and the professor is there only to answer questions we have arising from our conversations.

    I must admit I am surprised how brilliantly it is working as an intensive immersion environment. The rate of progress is much faster in this “hot house” environment than I have ever had in “real life” discussions about typically mundane topics.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Wow, they applied my advice very quickly! :P
      Maybe times are a-changing after all! Great to hear how effective it is :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Well said Andrea! Conformity is the issue here and until people break out of the patterns, the system will always fall short. Luckily many of us can choose how we experience that system and decide to get the best out of it!

  • http://twitter.com/possiblevaca Possible Vacation

    I think you have some fabulous ideas! I wish schools could get students more involved in the language they are learning. I remember sitting in Spanish class wishing there was a better way to learn this material then just listening to the teach try and teach us vocabulary words out of a book.

  • http://www.filecabinetkey.net/steel-file-cabinets-for-sale Steel File Cabinets

    I wanna find more info about this, anybody could?