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 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.