Thursday, 6 January 2011

Why Language learning classes won't work


More cobweb cleaning ready to start a new year, people often bang on about teaching techniques and why traditional language teaching won't work, etc. etc. but it seems to me that the truth is simple that a class, in school, for learning a language will never work, it simply can't.

What I mean here is a class as part of the normal curriculum for teaching children at school, or a regular weekly class at a night-school. And when I say it won't work, I mean that even years of attendance is unlikely to result in being able to comfortably speak and understand the language despite successfully completing the classes and passing tests etc.

The Problem

The problem as I see it is that learning a language requires learning and effort on a lot of different levels. Often language learning is compared to sport or learning a musical instrument, I think that mastering a language is broader than most of these comparisons, there are a lot of facts (or near facts, more on that in a later post) to learn as well as the need to spend a lot of time on task (actually playing the sport / instrument or listening to music).

If however we are generous and compare speaking a language (whatever that actually means) to playing a sport or instrument well then consider the fact that the standard education system can't achieve either of these goals with sport or music (and doesn't really try). Music classes teach about music, and introduce music, maybe even inspire some students, but they do not make competent musicians out of the vast majority of students. Standard sport lessons introduce sports, give the students a little exercise, but they do not produce competent sports people. In fact nobody expects these music and sports lessons to do much more than they actually do.

The students that progress in sports and music are the ones that have extra lessons, the ones who join clubs outside or inside school, the ones that attend extra practice for their class or school team. Most of them can't progress beyond a very basic standard without this extra effort, and nobody expects otherwise.

There is only so much time available in education, standards in Maths and Mother Language achieve what they do in the time available, there is some variation due to talent and interest and method but the employees and further education establishments take what is produced and work with it. In this way though what is produced by language classes does not offer functional abilities in the language.

Basic to intermediate communication skills could theoretically be taught in the time available but then we have the other education system problem of testing and assessment. Educationalists are not going to be happy with just being able to say that 80% of students leave the system able to have a "reasonable conversation" and leave it at that, far easier to test them on predetermined content and their abilities to do things with grammar that might even baffle a native speaker. A bit like teaching students to strip down, clean and re-assemble a saxophone, with little to no ability to play the thing (easy to grade though).

The whole thing needs to be turned on it's head, we need to review what we expect from language education, maybe not even call French lessons by that name, just call it "Language Education". Change the focus and the expectation, French lessons are now the thing that you do extra (like guitar lessons and playing for the soccer team) you won't get good unless you put the time in.


Most adults would not expect to attend a saxophone class for a couple of hours a week, do an hour or so homework on it a week and get any good at playing saxophone this side of the next ten years (especially if they have no previous musical experience to build on. Yet countless people regularly take on classes in a foreign language on this premise.

Is it bonkers or am I? comments gratefully received.


  1. I agree that classes on their own will not produce competent speakers, but I don't think this devalues classes as much as you suggest. For one thing, I think most people actually are aware that extra practice and work is required to gain fluency. Classes can be valuable, especially in providing people a framework in which to learn.
    Also, mainstream language qualifications should not focus entirely on oral fluency. If this was their objective than I would agree entirely with your points above. However, any qualification, especially those on the curriculum, ought to give wider ranging skills such as analysis and critical thinking that can benefit other subject areas. If people want fluency, then as you say they can put the extra time in and get this. To me this isn't a flaw with classes.

  2. Thank you for the comment, I did expect some disagreement, mine isn't a fully argument, I am testing the waters.

    Maybe the argument is better for school children, if you replace the French/German/Spanish mandatory lessons on the English schools curriculum with a more generic language lesson that teaches the skills you mention then wouldn't that be an improvement?

    What is really galling is that Children here can get an A* (the best grade) in their GCSE German and still not be able to hold a conversation with a regular German speaker.

    Also many evening classes offer exaggerated promises.

    You have made a valid point though.

  3. I agree with you. Language learning in the classroom is usually more focused on learning about the language than learning to speak it. I think if we really want students to learn to speak the language we need to spend only half the time teaching what is normally taught in such a class. The other half of the time native speakers should be brought into the classroom and students should converse with them in the target language without being corrected at all unless they ask for help. If students could be taught how to be comfortable speaking imperfectly, they'd be speaking perfectly sooner without a doubt.

  4. Well said Vanessa, I agree over-correction leads to fear. Initially the student should only be aware if the person they are speaking to completely fails to understand them.

  5. Chris, I totally agree. Formal classes are only one component of learning a new language. I feel that some students in my class may just expect everything to fall into place. I find that I need to learn from many different sources, in varied ways. I also agree with Vanessa. Bringing native speakers into the classroom for speaking practice, is a wonderful idea...our local market vendors, however friendly, I'm sure don't have the time and or motivation to accommodate my need for bad Thai conversation/listening practice, on a regular basis ;)