Best way to learn a foreign language? Not the usual way

by Weronika Lass

It's safe to say that despite years of experience, on a nationwide scale we still don't know how to efficiently teach foreign languages. The problem is especially pronounced in the United States, where only around 17% of the nation speaks more than one language. Russell A. Berman, professor from Stanford University and a former president of the Modern Language Association, felt it apt to warn that the U.S. is on its way to becoming a nation of “second language illiterates.”

When the vast majority of a society doesn't speak a second language, it obviously affects the nation's economy. Without the possibility of easy communication with rest of the world, companies and organizations lose lucrative opportunities and local industries, suffering from a skills shortage, turn to global graduates to fill the gap. Investing in language education is crucial in enriching the linguistic capabilities of nations like Americans.

A common solution to the problem is often about resources – if only we invested more time and money to language instruction, this problem could be easily managed and slowly rooted out. Many experts point out, however, that the problem runs deeper than resources – it is in fact, the problem of the teaching methodology.

If you were ever enrolled in a language course, you know the drill – the introductory classes revolve around simple grammatical concepts and a lot of time is devoted to studying the rules of a given language, instead of active practice through oral or written production. This seems misguided, especially if we consider that languages are there to be spoken, not understood. Passive understanding is way easier than active production, so it seems that most language courses focus on aspects that play marginal roles in second language learning process.

Many students find the prospect of going through such theory-heavy lessons daunting – it's clear that grammar-focused instruction negatively affects student motivation. Even if students learn how to conjugate all verbs and learn about exceptions, holding a regular conversation will be a challenge. This is the best example of the absurdity of modern reliance on grammar as the single best resource for language instruction.

Are there any alternatives to this kind of approach? Sure there are! One thing language instructors could do is granting their students opportunities for using the language in a live environment, for instance during a conversation. Languages are tools for communication and this aspect should be foregrounded in language instruction. Instead, you'll find that most courses feature more grammar exercises rather than conversation prompts.

Fortunately language instructors have been busy developing new methodologies and approaches for more efficient and practical language instruction. One of the most popular new ways to teach a second language is called “content and language integrated learning.” The basic idea behind this approach is using foreign languages to teach subjects that aren't in any way related to the language itself. Early research conducted on the methodology suggests that it's proving to be very effective in building an environment that fosters quick and impressive language learning.

Inspired by this innovative approach, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection removed the traditional grammar-based Spanish course that was required of its agents-in-training and instead replaced it with a brand new curriculum that focused on teaching specific and essentially job-related tasks in Spanish. The results of this change were unbelievable. The agents were able to acquire the required language skills more effectively and – despite the fact that the new course didn't follow a grammar-based syllabus – their grammar was actually better!

Such news bring hope to instructors all over the world because they add to the constantly growing body of research indicating that the traditional language instruction methodologies did more harm than good – and that we should fundamentally reevaluate how to teach foreign languages in our education systems.

One way to start is by rethinking the idea of language classes altogether. Instead of having isolated courses called “Spanish” or “French,” education institutions should organize language instruction dispersed across the curriculum. Tying language learning with a specific topic will make the experience much more engaging for learners – gym, art and music could all be easily taught in foreign languages.

This could be a great idea for younger kinds who would then enter high school education with a solid knowledge of the basics. It's then that they could benefit more from specialty or elective courses that are conducted in foreign languages to teach subjects like from drama or home economics. Such an organization will help us to deal with the traditional segregated model of language instruction which still dominates over education. Interested students would have more opportunities to enrich their knowledge about a foreign language through an advanced study of literature and culture.

Simultaneously, such an organization of second language learning would bring more opportunities for schools where for many students English is not their first language. Instead of treating such students as nothing else than an expensive problem that needs solving, institutions could actually take advantage of their language skills and turn them into valuable assets.

Helping nations to move beyond just one language is a top priority in today's globalized reality, where international relations are more important for national economies than ever. It's smart to place the emphasis in language learning on communication not on the language itself – when we stop trying to teach learners about what learners are saying and just start to expect them to say it, we will surely witness a complete revolution in language instruction and generate far better results.

This article was contributed by Weronika Lass of


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