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

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

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.

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

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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