Think back to when you were at school - what foreign language classes did you take? If you were in the US, you most likely took Spanish, but quite possibly French, or even German. In many non-English speaking countries, English is the main foreign language taught. With so many kids around the world all apparently learning languages at school, why do so few gain any kind of proficiency in it that lasts beyond their school days?

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Every urban public school in China teaches English to students from Grades 1 to 12, with many learning in kindergarten…so why aren’t all the hundreds of millions of Chinese young people all fluent in English? Every public school in the UK is also required to offer modern languages as a compulsory subject, with French and Spanish being the most common choices, and yet the British as adults and tourists are infamous across Europe as the least able to speak any other languages.

We think we have the answers below:

School Language Programs are Passive

Successful language learners and their experienced teachers know that to really master a language, one has to actively engage in the language. Experts have long known that it takes students actively seeking opportunities to speak and use the language knowledge and skills they have learned in order to master them and retain them.

A typical school language class, however, features a teacher asking, and students giving pre-rehearsed or single-word answers, or possibly a teacher saying something and the students repeating it back like parrots. This is no way to gain mastery of any language.

There’s No Immersion

Besides learning actively, another key element to successful language learning is immersion. Most school language courses are conducted in the native language of the students, further reducing their exposure to the target language.

What’s more, as soon as the bell rings and they leave the classroom, the rest of the day is also conducted in their mother tongue, meaning students only get perhaps 40-80 minutes absolute maximum in a foreign language environment each day, with a lot of that time being taken up by the kids’ teacher explaining things in their mother tongue.

The Scope of the Courses is Limited

The pace at which students learn in a structured school course is incredibly slow. They could spend weeks on a single topic such as colors, simple food items, basic directions, and so on. What students in a typical high school learn in a Spanish, English, or German course over an academic year, an intensive and more active course somewhere might cover in a month or two. A slow pace can be beneficial when it’s combined with immersion and real-world practice because it breaks the language down into more manageable chunks. However, in the case of school courses, it doesn’t help because there’s no immersion, and no chance to use the language outside of the classroom.

The Teachers are Not Native Speakers

Another problem that many school courses have is that they are not taught by a native speaker of the target language. We don’t intend to malign teachers and their skills here. In many countries, especially developed countries, even non-natives are trained to very levels, and have lived in a country where the language they are teaching is spoken for at least a year during their university years.

However, their knowledge of the language can easily fall out of date as they focus only on their course materials year after year. They often lack knowledge of current buzzwords, slang and other native parlance that would be helpful for students to learn to gain a more authentic experience.

There’s Competition, but No Cooperation

School language classrooms create a sense of competition with test scores, pop quizzes, and contests to see who can impress the teacher most with their pronunciation or how many words they’ve memorized over the weekend. Some might think competition is good because it drives students to learn more. This isn’t quite right.

What really happens is you get a class of students, half or less of them on an upward curve thriving in the competition, with the remainder just trying to get through the test and get it over with. What language classrooms really need is more of a sense of cooperation between students. When students are working together to help each other learn more, the collective effect is much better.

Where’s the Motivation?

What do you get at the end of a school language course? Typically you’ll get a letter grade and/or a score on the final exam. Is that really sufficient motivation to master a language, gain insight into a culture and develop an invaluable communication skill? For the vast majority of students, it is not.

Effective language learning requires passion and depth. You have to be fascinated by the language, and have an appreciation for its quirks and intricacies. If there’s no motivation, no real learning will happen.

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