“Écoutez!”, my teacher rang out as we began our French lesson for the day. As most kids took out their binders, I found myself pondering my French ability. I had been taking French for a couple of years, yet I couldn’t actually speak the language? There had to be a better way.
Now, most in my class were content with their progress. They learned the vocabulary, stuck it in their head for 48 hours, and then regurgitated it all on the next quiz - but put them in front of a living, breathing, native speaker and it’s a different story.
In this article, we will tackle:
● Flaws in the traditional classroom that hinder your learning progress.
● What you can do to counter these problems in the classroom.
● How to use your knowledge to help others in the classroom.
Before I start, I want to add a disclaimer. This advice is for serious language learners who want to learn their language to proficiency in the classroom. If that is not your goal, that is fine. I know many people who are content with their progress in the classroom, and just want to scratch the surface of their language. However, if you want to learn your language to proficiency, then this guide is for you.
I run a club in my school (the Language Learners Club), and this year, we invited native speakers from Germany, Austria, and France to come in and talk to us about their culture. It would be perfect: German and French are taught at my school, and kids would have an opportunity to speak their respective tongues. Somebody grab the camera!
My view was romanticized, to say the least. The club was captivated at what our guests were saying, but when it came to interaction in our speakers’ native language, there was no more than a “Danke” or a “Bonjour” from the class. I then realized the problem: the presenters also spoke the E-word: English.
The kids were having fun, and the guests spoke with them, but it was all in English. And that is a persistent problem in many states across the USA.
Most teachers believe that immersion is not the best way to go, and therefore everything must be instructed in English (or another native language), and translated into the target language. You translate from English into your target language, the grammatical concepts are in English, and most of the class is conducted in English.
This is misleading. A class can be conducted in the target language. An example: when I learn French at my school, everything is conducted in English. This, in the United States, is a “typical” language classroom. But as soon as I wanted to improve my French level, through a great site called Italki, I was amazed.
My French teacher spoke to me in French the entire class! Although I didn’t understand a majority of what he said, I got the gist of his instructions.
With no “connection” to the language, everything one tries to do in the language must be translated from their native language into the target language. This may be fine for single words, but in conversations, this ends up being a handicap.
If you did languages at school, you probably have experience of the situations I described above. Yes, language learning in a traditional classroom can be difficult. However, there are also a few advantages. These include:
● A teacher who has learned the language to proficiency.
● A classroom of new ideas and thoughts.
● Others to “compete” with (think healthy stress).
There are a few reasons to take a foreign language class. Of course, it also has its downsides. Maybe you are a visual learner, but the course is taught for auditory learners. Maybe your class has 30 students. Divide that by 90 minutes (the average class time), and that’s only 3 minutes of time with the teacher! This doesn’t even include speaking time, so overall speaking time in the class in less than three minutes.
Whatever challenges you may face when learning your language, you can overcome them! There is one key to making it all work for you, regardless of your skill level, learning style, or any other factors. The key is supplementation.
What is supplementation, you may ask? It is actually quite simple: adding activities, exercises, and other tasks that are tailored to your interests and learning style. This will do two things for your language learning progress. It will help you learn more, because the method is fine-tuned for you, and it will keep you motivated, as the process will now be more fun, entertaining, and will keep you going.
This is not to say that there will be a golden path to fluency for you once you implement this strategy. The difficult concepts may remain difficult, but if you have the process in place, they will be easier to grasp, and more difficult to forget.
Although the idea of customized learning may be a daunting one, it can be much easier (and more fun) than you think. Here is an example: new vocabulary.
Now, in your language class, you may have to use flashcards to learn these new words. And if that works for you, continue using flashcards.
However, what about trying Anki flashcards? The concept is the same, a deck of flashcards (digital), but when you go through the deck, the ones you forget will be put into your review session more frequently.
This is what I call a “general” example of customized learning, because anybody can use it, regardless of learning style. An extra step would be putting an image on the other side of the flashcard. This would be more effective for visual learners, so I call it a “specific” example of customized learning, because it will help those that learn visually the best. If you are an auditory learner, maybe the best way to go is having a recording of a native speaker on the opposite side.
Another idea is speaking with native speakers, via Skype. A visual learner may do best when the camera is turned on, so they can get visual gestures on the words and their meanings through body language. An auditory learner may do best when the camera is turned off, so that they can dedicate their energy and skills towards listening to the native speaker.
The best part of all of these ideas is that it can all be done at your house! You don’t have to leave and go to the country where your language is spoken; you can travel to your computer! This idea of customized learning will boost your language proficiency greatly!
Say you’ve just come off a great weekend session of studying. You feel energized and ready for your foreign language class. As the class begins, you realize that you are far above where everyone else is in the class. And the teacher is implementing the same methods that you were trying to avoid! How can you turn this from a negative to a positive?
First and foremost, communication is key. Tell your teacher about your methods, and how they help you learn the language. Here is how I see the teacher; a teacher should be a guide to help you learn your language.
The teacher should give vocabulary, give grammar structures, and other language learning advice, but it is up to the learner how to use it. If a teacher tells you to do one type of learning, and doesn’t want you doing what works for you, then I would drop the class immediately. Your teachers should be happy that you found something that works for you, not force you to do it their way.
Another thing you could do is ask for some advanced resources to help you. While everyone else is working on one tough vocabulary set, you could be using your Anki deck to learn advanced vocabulary, or going over your previous conversation. While everyone else is filling in the blanks, why can’t you write about something you love in your target language?
Also, don’t be hesitant to tell people about your process. People are always looking for a better approach or a new method, so what do you have to fear? Even if you just tell one person, if the idea is shared over and over, soon many people will be using your method. Who knows: if enough people like it, maybe the teacher will notice, and your process will be used in the classroom.
Also, ask your teacher about speaking in the classroom. Although the average student may only get less than three minutes of speaking time per class, with conversation partners (found online or in person), you can get twenty, thirty, or even one hour of speaking time!
Perhaps you could spend some time after class talking with the teacher in the target language. Or, you could have a language pen pal come into your classroom via Skype, for some more authentic practice.
Language learning is always a very difficult task. Couple that with some of the very difficult obstacles facing language learners in the classroom, and the job may seem like an extreme uphill battle. In a survey done by the General Social Survey between 2000 and 2006, less than one percent of all students speak a foreign language fluently upon graduation. However, with all of the tools discovered here, there is no reason that you cannot learn a foreign language and have fun doing so.
James Corl is a language lover and enthusiast. Starting with Italian in 7th grade, he has since learned French, Spanish, and Chinese, all to varying degrees. Check out his Italki profile here!