Why is so much of foreign language teaching ineffective? Why are so many students leaving foreign language programs without being able to understand, much less use the language?
One major factor is time. Many foreign language programs here in the U.S. are for only 4-5 hours a week, for four years (or less). At the high school that I teach at we have four hours of class time with each class every week, with a total of 39 weeks in the school year. This equals 156 hours a year for each class. Of course, not every week is a full week, and not every single minute is used for instruction. Time is lost with transitions and other administrative duties that are required by the school, so the actual number of hours would be less than that. Even so, simply compare this to one year of living in the target language country. If you were exposed to the language for about 16 hours a day (8 hours would be spent sleeping) that equals 4,096 hours after one year. Or, one day in the target language country equals about a month of in-class instruction time at my high school. On top of that, your motivation as a language learner tends to be much higher when you are simply trying to survive and communicate with others. You can’t eat if you don’t know how to ask for some food. That’s a much bigger motivator than simply trying to earn a grade (at least for me- my desire to eat is much greater than my desire to be able to tell others that I got a good grade in French class…).
The other major factor that I see is that much of traditional teaching, which students are conditioned to expect as they go through the system, is antipathetic to real communication. Real communication is about two or more people sharing their minds, hearts, and lives with each other through language. The word communication itself is about “coming together as one”. Take a moment to think about how you learned your mother tongue. It began with your relationship with your mother, father, family, and friends (most likely in that order). You experienced the language through relationships of love and through real life needs and desires. You were bathed in the language. You fell to sleep to the sound of lullabies. You learned to tell others that you were hungry or that you needed something. You learned the three most important words in any language, “I love you.”
Compare this to what is expected in school. The teacher is the expert who doles out rewards and punishment for behavior and demonstration of expected knowledge in students. Students are often considered “lacking” in one way or the other, otherwise they wouldn’t need to be at school. Teachers are expected to lecture, create learning experiences, monitor, grade, report, and many other administrative functions while students are expected to do as they’re told, absorb the information, use it in some way, do school work and homework, pass tests, all while also going through massive physical and mental changes and dealing with the social environment of their classmates and friends. While much of this environment is (or at least can be) positive, there are also many difficulties such as bullying, comparison, competition, and power struggles combined with all that students are dealing with in their home lives (which seem to often be more and more chaotic). Needless to say, the school environment is NOT conducive to true communication as I’ve described it.
In that case, is all for naught as far as communication and language learning goes in our schools? Perhaps I’m an eternal optimist, but I think that this isn’t the case. What is needed though, is the knowledge that language learning (in a deep and profound way) rarely (if at all) happens without communication that involves relationships in which one can share one’s mind, heart, and life. We need to create environments within our schools where care, trust, humor, creativity, and safety are of prime importance. We need a place where our lives and the lives of others are the curriculum (or at least a large part thereof). The student and the teacher need to know that relationships have to be encouraged and valued so that connections can be made, and so that the language we’re seeking to learn can be planted and grow in our hearts, minds, and souls.