3 approaches to language learning that need to be reconsidered at the high school level

I don’t mean to offend anyone who is currently dedicating part of their life, or some, their whole life, to this field of work. It is not an easy job and many teachers take on the job heartlessly.

That being said, I have some criticisms of how high school classes are often structured. The traditional foreign language instruction at the high school level often does students a disservice in understanding true language learning.

All too often we hear the same story: “I took four years of Spanish in high school and I don’t remember a thing.” Enter here all of the following clichés about language learning: “If you don’t start early then you’ll never be able to know a language,” “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” etc.

If we are hear these comments as commonly as I have throughout my seven years of teaching, then, we really need to re-evaluate what we are doing in the classroom.

#1: Learning language discretely instead of holistically
The traditional curriculum does not focus on language holistically. Language is not viewed as a whole, but is broken down into discrete parts and segments. The result is that many students leave the language class with an inadequate view of the language and therefore they don’t retain it after a few years. They don’t retain it because they don’t have the full picture.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and compare language to a lofty yet integral concept in Eastern religion: Zen. Zen is the practice of seeing and experiencing life in the moment.  Everyone wants to be Zen, that is, everyone wants to proficient in a second language. But, the minute that you try to adapt to a certain regimen, follow a set of instructions, guidelines, or procedures, or listen to a guru, or if I can incriminate myself, a teacher, in order to achieve Zen – it is no longer Zen.

The Zen of language is that it is here in an instant and gone the next. This is the mindset that we need to adopt when teaching languages. It is constantly adapting and growing. It is always in motion. Words are created and destroyed. Words change their meaning in certain contexts and after a certain period of time. Words are melded together. Language comes up with rules and then breaks them. It is a disservice to students to study language in discrete parts. It bypasses its beautiful constant fluctuation and adaptation to the culture and to reality.

The analogy here is achieving Zen (which is a goal and creating a results-oriented mindset, and therefore, restricts this achievement) is the same as attaining a certain level of proficiency in a language. Instead of spending class time using, observing, creating, and enjoying language, we spend most of our time talking about the language. We talk about how the rules do this and this. We are asking students to follow a certain set of rules, acronyms, guidelines, procedures, and numbered lists so that they will eventually become “proficient” in a language. We break down concepts into a discrete set of rules and laws, and then make students practice the difference between them. If you spend all your time thinking about language, instead of just doing language, you’re missing the point. Likewise, if you spend all your time thinking about achieving Zen instead just observing/being Zen, then you’re just thinking about it instead of just doing it.

The major structure of the high school classroom is to teach a “theme” around a distinct, chapter of grammar. Teachers with good intentions provide acronyms, songs, mnemonics, and games to help students remember these rules to the language. That’s all good for about a chapter. Students feel confident and we are on our way. But then, there is a complete “irregular” section of the grammar, because of course, despite all of our efforts to teach these rules – which we teach as absolute – there are always exceptions. Then, magically students continually challenge the teacher and say “well wait a minute, I thought that this verb did this, under these circumstances. It says so in the acronym we learned!” The teacher shrugs and says “that’s just how language works, sometimes it doesn’t like to play by the rules.” Maybe the exception is that the rule is wrong in the first place. View language more holistically in the classroom.

#2: X = Y approach to defining vocabulary
We also have a terrible tendency to teach students that there is only one definition per word. This is a myopic approach to language instruction. We give them a vocabulary list with the L2 (classroom language) definition on the left and the L1 (native language) language on the right. “Oh, well, that word means this.” But then, undoubtedly, students will encounter that same word in an article, recording, YouTube video, textbook, sentence and say “I thought that meant y.” It said so on our vocabulary sheet.

The teacher then responds: “Oh, wait, in this article means z.

Then the students will remark with some cliché response: “This language is so annoying, they have so many words that mean multiple things.”

We are setting students up for frustration because we don’t acknowledge the fact that every language does this. Words often carry multiple meanings in a variety of contexts. The truth is that words are simply vessels for meaning. Instead of focusing on the meaning of the message behind the words – the ideas – we focus on literal translation. This reductionist approach to vocabulary instruction is insufficient.

Just think of the word “get” in English.  Think of how many different meanings this word has in everyday interactions:

“he needs to get a life,” “it gets harder, let me tell you,” “will that get me a good grade?”  “why did he got an A on his test but I got an F,” “get a life,” “get me a soda,” “get outta here,” “get off me,” “get to the point,” “on your marks, get set, go!” “it was a loss from the get-go” “he really gets to me,”  “she really gets me,” (past tense) “you got a guitar yesterday?,” dude, you totally got me,” “dude, get this,” “girl, you really got me goin’, you got me so I don’t know what I’m doin’.”

I could go on and on. Imagine the disservice we are doing students if we reduce the meaning of this beautifully versatile verb to a mere “to get = to obtain.” X = Y.

Instead, students need to be exposed to myriad examples of language through listening, reading, pictures, videos, teacher input, and repetition. Students need immense amounts of input to best acquire a language. We need to teach students that language is simply a well-organized and rule-bound tool to communicate ideas and meanings. When we communicate, we are communicating ideas, not words.

#3: Useless Vocabulary
We also learn useless vocabulary in the high school. Case in point: when the hell am I ever going to have to say chores in Spanish? Again, I really don’t want to offend anyone, but let’s get real about our choices of words and topics we decide to teach our students. I’ve never had to talk about doing chores in any real-world, practical interaction in a foreign country. In fact, I would consider it weird if our conversations ever got to that point. We need to be focusing on authentic language – and lots of exposure to it.

Other useless topics usually taught in the high school classroom:
– Daily Routines (have you really ever talked about brushing your teeth with a foreigner?)
– Describing people (this might appear on an ID card, but not likely to be encountered)
– Rooms in a House (maybe renting an Air BNB, but that’s only bedroom and bathroom)
–  Random Vocab (seat belt, etc.)

Many teachers will say: “but I learned the language this way just fine – it worked for me!” They may insinuate that they worked harder and focused more than other students and were therefore more successful. Listen, if you became a foreign language teacher, then you obviously had a knack for it at the start. You are a “super grammar user,” as James Taylor from BYU called it. It is not fair to continue teaching this way simply because it worked for 1% of the population.

I’d like to dig even deeper in this analysis of our focus in traditional high school curriculum. Consider the fact that a majority of our language isn’t even verbal. We communicate with our hands, faces, and bodies. We also communicate with tone of voice. And it’s amazingly subtle. One false step can mean a disagreement, the end of a date, an argument or even a fight. We communicate in cars mostly nonverbally, and it can be the difference between driving safe to work or colliding with another vehicle. Think of how a horn is used to communicate. A quick tap is a polite “hey let’s go, the light is green.” A drawn out horn is rude and provocative. Two quick honks is a hello or a goodbye. Think if we took an X = Y vocabulary approach to the horn when teaching students in driver’s Ed. Oh, well a horn honk (X) means excuse me (Y). Nope.

To give an entertaining example of nonverbal language, the eloquent “guy nod,” as you all know it, is a nod down when acknowledging a stranger’s existence and a nod up if it’s your buddy or pal.  To put it verbally, the nod down is more of a “good morning,” or a formal “hey.” The nod up is like “what’s up, man?

So, to sum up this piece, we need to reorient our focus to a more holistic and practical approach to language learning. We need to explain to students that yes, there is some glue used to hold the language together, but it is best learned through observation and examples, instead of rigid regimens and getting frustrated when there are plenty of irregulars. We need to focus on real-world and authentic language uses. We also need to educate students on the true meaning and use of words. Words do not have one simple definition, but instead they are vessels to convey multiple meanings. If we teach this way, students will be supremely less frustrated and successful.

I will talk about the antidote to these approaches in a separate recording.

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