Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Are high school students wasting time learning foreign languages?

For a while now, China has been helping schools around the world employ Chinese teachers. This week, the New York Times took a stab at this topic with an article entitled "Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America". How much Chinese are these students actually going to retain over the long run? Not much, according to this Chinese teacher:
“I want my students to have a sweet, sweet memory of taking Chinese,” … said [Zheng Yue, a 27-year-old woman from China who is teaching her native language to students in Lawton, Oklahoma]. “They won’t remember a lot of words, but I want them to remember the beauty of the language and the culture.”
I guess if your goal is to enhance China's soft power, that's a win, but it sounds like a fail as far as language learning goes.

And she's not the only one to question the benefits to be had by teaching languages in high school.

Here are some excerpts from a Washington Post article by Jay Matthews entitled "Why waste time on a foreign language?":
A high school teacher said that “language study is complete nonsense for most people. I’d wager close to 80 percent of kids taking foreign languages in high school do so because they have to.” … There is little evidence that many students achieve much fluency in high school. … [The] difficult[ly in learning a foreign language is] another reason why high school language students don’t get very far. …

We tell our children that their Spanish or Russian or Arabic or Japanese studies are important. But we give them high grades for little progress. Most colleges don’t require that applicants have more than two years. And from what I can see, based on what actually happens in high schools, learning a foreign language often is a waste of time.
In my experience, students achieve virtually no fluency at all in high school. However, I disagree with the potential implication that languages shouldn't be taught. That's like saying that, because you're not getting enough pay, you shouldn't work.

The real problem is with the method. Learning something complex like a language doesn't have to feel difficult, but the methods used in schools make it pretty painful to learn. High schools might want to see what they can do to imitate Drake University's program to make language-learning more attractive, or perhaps explore any of the numerous language-learning resources now available on the web, which include music, games, etc., and any number of other things that are much more attractive than crusty old textbooks.


  1. Let's change that a bit:

    Mathematics study is complete nonsense for most people. I’d wager close to 80 percent of kids taking mathematics in high school do so because they have to. … There is little evidence that many students achieve much competency in high school. … The difficulty in learning mathematics is another reason why high school students don’t get very far. …

    Does it still not make sense? Ask most adults how to do long division and they can't tell you. Fractions, probability, geometry, proofs... It's all gone, unless they really liked it. Just like foreign languages.

    I don't advocate dropping mathematics, literature, history/social studies/geography, and I don't advocate dropping foreign languages, either.

    Students (in general) always learn just enough to pass their tests and then forget everything they can.

    I don't disagree that new methods could be better, though. There is too much focus on passing state-approved tests and not enough on actually using the language, IMHO.

  2. William: That's a great point!

    All the rhetoric I read online from language learners is that the school system has a lousy way of teaching languages that we all want to change, not throw out all together.

    I wonder how this scenario would play out: kids take a one year course that teaches the basics in as many as three languages. Kids can get a feel for how other languages work, learn a little about their cultures, and memorize some key phrases. That's all they usually do anyway, right? Might as well do it in one year.

    The same school could have a nicely subsidized language club or sort of AP track that has a goal of achieving fluency in one or two years and then sending the kids abroad for a semester of study. Just a thought.

  3. The post about Chinese is correct, however, for the most part.

    The majority of Chinese programs focus on rote memorization of too much material for mastery and long-term retention, or they sidestep the "difficult" parts and focus on the "beauty of 5000 years of Chinese culture". There is usually over-emphasis on writing characters. Chinese people do not write by hand these days other than phone messages and greeting cards. What is being taught is great for what it's worth, but it does not make the kids fluent in Chinese. And it is hard to imagine a language in which it is EASIER to become fluent in speaking and listening!

    Three State-certified American Chinese teachers (all of whom learned Chinese from zero as young adults and are now teaching the language -- and one of whom holds a Ph.D in teaching Chinese) proposed a session at ACTFL this year to share their specific techniques and some insights on teaching Chinese to American students. REJECTED! There is apparently little interest in changing anything or trying to make Chinese instruction work for long-term language acquisition.

    The Hanban program of sending Chinese teachers over is working fine in the opinion of those who know nothing about long-term retention of language skills -- or perhaps, as has been suggested, that is not the ultimate goal anyway. As things are set up now, any language taught in most (not all) American schools is not mastered by the kids for long-term use. Programs teach "grammar" and "the rules" and "culture", but the kids can't use the languages when they get out.

    Until we switch wholesale to input-based instruction and mastery learning instead of "eight weeks, eight chapters, that means one chapter 'covered' a week", the situation will not improve. We also need to realize that you do not have to be a lovely young Chinese woman to teach Chinese effectively. Most of the Hanban teachers have no concept of what a class full of American kids, including the usual 10-20% "special needs" kids, is like. I feel sorry for most of them.

    We teach Chinese through Comprehensible Input (TPRS) and literacy methods. It works. But try to get anyone to look at your results seriously if you're not Chinese and/or backed by the Chinese government. Good luck with that.

  4. There HAS been a drastic change over the past five years in how languages are taught--I am a language teacher and have experienced this first-hand. My classes for certification were based on input instruction with emphasis on real-life applications. We use games, online learning, such as blogging, Skype, podcasts, etc. to engage students in learning more from languages. The problem lies in how people understand language learning. I've learned that it takes over 700 hours of total immersion in the language to become fluent; it's impossible to reach this level when students come one hour a day. If people could understand how languages work and that fluency is not achieved through only two years of study, then maybe we could get out of this cloud of false expectations to actually become proficient in foreign languages.

  5. The "immersion" figures are based on a type of "immersion" that is sink or swim. That, to me, is linguistic waterboarding. ;-) Without the comprehensible aspect to input, it might as well be white noise.

    We have 200 school days a year; if we have nearly an hour per day to provide useful, comprehensible input, we can surely do much better than has been the case in the past. After all, that's 500 hours of input (conservatively) in three or four years of high school! So the question really is: why AREN'T high schoolers becoming fluent?

  6. @William: Passing state-approved tests could potentially be useful if the tests cover the right thing. For languages, that'd mean upping the speaking and listening portions. That said, the method of evaluating students based on tests is problematic, because it's always going to encourage the cramming. Shoving as much stuff into your head right before a test, dumping all that out in the test, and then quickly forgetting it is not an irrational course of action in that it can minimize time spent while maximizing grades. That's a big part of how I was able to get a good GPA in both high school and college, and it definitely works.

    @Ryan: I'm totally opposed to that one-year course that teaches kids the basics in as many as three languages. That is exactly what my school district did (Spanish, French, German), and I found it to be a complete waste of time. The result was that no one bothered to do anything in any of the classes because so little was covered, and people tuned out even more in the language they weren't interested in (most people already knew which one they wanted to study).

    I'm totally with you on anything that leads high-school kids to study abroad. I've seen few methods as effective as throwing people into a "learn or don't communicate" situation.

  7. @Terry: It's hardly surprising that a Chinese program sponsored by China focuses on rote memorization, given how education takes place in China, and it's not surprising that rote memorization isn't very effective.

    It's a great point you make about writing by hand; it's almost a complete waste of time. I've seen on numerous occasions when Chinese and Japanese speakers can't recall how to write a character by hand, and it's not surprising because no one ever writes by hand. Type it out phonetically in your computer, hit the space bar, and select the right characters from the list generated. You need to be able to recognize them, not write them.

    I also agree that it's easy to become fluent in speaking and listening to Chinese. Grammar consists of pretty much nothing more than figuring out in which order the words need to go, and that's often similar enough to English!

    "As things are set up now, any language taught in most (not all) American schools is not mastered by the kids for long-term use. Programs teach 'grammar' and 'the rules' and 'culture', but the kids can't use the languages when they get out." You're dead on there. I was an extremely motivated language learner in high school, and I could barely use any of the languages I studied in high school when I got out. My impression from talking to more recent high school graduates is that not a lot has changed overall.

    Given that the Chinese government's goal here is pretty much to promote China, wouldn't they be more effective in reaching their goal if they actually taught the kids Chinese for long-term retention?

    All else equal, I'm always going to prefer a native-speaker tutor to a non-native-speaker as well, so I have some sympathy for that preference, but if that native speaker is totally ineffective and the non-native speaker has great results, then all else is not equal. Have you tried hiring native-Chinese speakers and training them in your method? That would seem to make it a little easier to pry open the door.

  8. @Anonymous: That is certainly encouraging, but how widespread is what you describe? I would agree that it's pretty silly to think that two years of a language class will lead to fluency. That said, my impression of most high-school level language programs (and this is certainly not limited to those in the U.S.) is that the end result is so poor that, even if you're not expecting fluency, you're not in the wrong to be disappointed.

    @Terry: I'm a huge fan of immersion, but much of the value of such exposure is getting rid of that "white noise"; taking all that random exposure and making it meaningful exposure. Without doing that, it's very much going to be sink instead of swim.

    If 700 hours of immersion are required for fluency, and 500 classroom hours are available, wouldn't we then predict that our students should be 5/7 of the way to fluency? That's not even including time spent on homework, which would have at least covered that extra 2/7 for me.

  9. No. Because most of the "classroom hours" are:

    1) English being used in the classroom because "the kid wouldn't understand" (i.e., teachers are not trained in making their input 100% comprehensible);

    2) "Communicative" exercises that emphasize output from the kids (output is great, but you can't learn a language you don't know by producing that language);

    3) Teaching the kids grammar rules and having them manipulate words they barely know to fit those rules, because that's easy to measure and "they have to know grammar, it's important". This includes time spent teaching the kids how to talk about grammar using the correct labels in English. (That is linguistics, not language learning.)

    If you take away the time that is spent on the above in the average foreign language classroom these days in the US, you *might* get 10-15 minutes total (fragmented, too) of actual foreign language input. Whether or not that is really comprehensible is another question -- and a very crucial one.

    Teachers who DO focus on 100% comprehensible input are getting kids who pass the AP in 2nd or 3rd year Spanish. That takes lots of outside reading on the part of the kid, as it would for anyone who was seriously taking the AP at a later year of language class. The point is that it is not that hard to supply enough comprehensible input to have kids fluent -- by which I mean "able to easily and unconsciously and automatically use the structures of the language within a limited subset of vocabulary to express the meaning they want to get across, or to understand the meanings of others."

    No one will ever know all the words of a language. But if we could graduate kids who could confidently use the subset of highest-frequency vocabulary we selected for the high school years, they would find it dead easy to pick up any other vocab they needed for their specific situation.

    Input-based instruction is scary to admins for a number of reasons. First, it often, or, for skilled teachers, usually does not use a textbook. Many teachers are used to believing that the curriculum = the textbook. That's not true. The curriculum document should list the content that needs to be taught over the course of an entire level of language study. It is up to the teacher to present it in a logical and principled manner that facilitates rapid acquisition.

    The order of presentation in textbooks is usually grammar-driven (with the mistaken beliefs that "the past tense is too hard for beginners" and things like that) instead of the order that things are needed to express normal communication needs in the language, aka the order of acquisition (and each language has one). Things like the correct use of masculine or feminine definite articles (aka "el" and "la") in Spanish are late-acquired among native speaking children, but they are almost invariably "covered" in Lesson 1 of a textbook.

    Of course the other main culprits in all this are the textbook companies. Teachers who use traditional or "communicative" methodology from the 1980s and early 1990s loooooove textbooks that come with lots of ancillaries. They truly believe that showing kids videos with cute skits from actors speaking Spanish will somehow engage them. I truly wonder if any of these textbook writers has been in a classroom full of hormone-laden ninth-grade boys lately. (And let's not get me going on the language area supervisor who decreed that the Spanish II teachers would use a Dora the Explorer video as the basis for a "creative" chapter on sports. You have not lived until you've been forced to herd teenagers through an experience like that.)

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  11. I know this post is from a year ago but I couldn't help but respond when I came across it.
    I completley agree! In fact I was just finishing up a post on my blog about something similar. I was "taught" spanish all throughout middle and high school yet  was completley unable to converse until I was in college where I had teachers who knew its more about speaking and listening rather than figureing out the grammar rules.
    My spanish teacher in High School was hilarious saying "how the heck can I teach you guys these grammar rules when you don't even know your own language grammar rules?!" hah. -Too true. But when you think about it, we didn't learn to speak from out parents laying out the rules for us with a list of vocabulary words. They just told us when we messed up and corrected us. (that and pretty much everything else youve mentioned in street-smart language)