Friday, November 18, 2011

Today’s exercise in heresy: In defense of the traditional language course

The following is a guest post by Serge Gorodish, the author of Country of the Blind.

Let’s consider the case of a hypothetical language student, whom we shall call Lenny. Lenny has studied, say, French for four years in high school—what the hell, make it twelve years from 1st grade onwards. After graduation, Lenny travels to France for the first time. He finds with shock and dismay that he can scarcely manage to ask where the restroom is and, what’s worse, finds the answer utterly incomprehensible.

But Lenny is nothing if not resourceful. He is determined to get a handle on this French thing. He joins the Paris chapter of the Jerry Lewis fan club, he watches every episode of obscure French cartoons, he leaves no stone unturned. Eventually, through a combination of luck and inspiration he hits on the magic formula (whatever it is). He finds himself speaking French with increasing facility. French women swoon at his feet, and even snooty maîtres-d’hôtel smile and nod approvingly of his eloquence.

And he thinks: Damn! All that time I wasted in stuffy, traditional language class!

We’ll come back to the case of Lenny shortly. But there seem to be a lot of Lennys out there in cyberspace. Some language gurus will tell you input is the secret; others will tell you it’s all about output—but almost all seem to agree that traditional language courses are the kiss of death. I respectfully disagree. I’ve tried studying languages in class, outside of class, at home, and in immersive environments. I’ve had both success and failure in every scenario. And I find that when embarking on a language I always sign up for a traditional course (if available).

I didn’t need to analyze why until writing this post. On reflection, I find the traditional approach has advantages—and disadvantages, too, but these can be negated if you take the right attitude. Let me start by defining what I call the “traditional” course: a group studying together, guided (and usually evaluated) by a “teacher” not only proficient in the language in question but with training and/or experience in the particular issues encountered by students of the language.

Disadvantage: The “A = fluency” fallacy. This figures into the story of Lenny above. How come I got all A’s in x years of French and I’m not fluent? The truth is that any language teacher—any teacher—is limited in what he or she can force you to do. The prof can assign more homework, but only has time to grade so much. (And if it’s not graded you probably wouldn’t do it anyway, right?) Class time is also limited. One Pimsleur lesson will probably give you more speaking time than two weeks of class. That’s just the way it is. The solution is to treat your class as a foundation for learning rather than the be-all and end-all.

Lenny says: I didn’t become fluent in French until I quit that traditional class and started singing French folk songs (or watching French movies, or whatever). Of course, Lenny could have done all that stuff at the same time he was attending “traditional” class, but he doesn’t seem to think of that.

Advantage: Time efficiency. The total-immersion approach is the most efficient use of calendar time but a lousy use of clock time. Let’s consider identical twins Bertha and Naomi who decide to take up the study of a totally unfamiliar language—say, Nepalese. Bertha enrolls in a humdrum “traditional” class. Naomi moves to Nepal. Let’s check up on them at the end of the semester. By that time Bertha has learned a couple of hundred words of vocabulary and some basic grammar. She may speak with painful slowness but if she’s paid attention she understands the phonemic structure of the language. She can read and write whatever she knows how to say. She can understand simple sentences if spoken slowly and can formulate simple sentences herself. Meanwhile Naomi—with just a bit of luck—can probably run circles around Bertha.

But is this a fair comparison? After all Bertha managed to carry on a life outside of language class during this time. (Maybe she was even studying other languages simultaneously—pretty tough for Naomi to do.) A typical semester is 16 weeks; let’s say Bertha’s class meets three times a week and suppose optimistically that she spends an hour on homework for each hour of class. That amounts to 96 hours total. If Naomi sleeps eight hours per night, then one semester for Bertha is really equivalent to just six days for Naomi. Where does Bertha compare after one semester to Naomi after six days? Now I predict that in most respects Bertha will be running circles around Naomi. Naomi probably has an edge on understanding natural speech, but otherwise is probably still struggling to remember the alphabet and has probably acquired nowhere near the vocabulary that Bertha has.

Moreover, if, at the end of the semester Bertha decides to pick up and move to Nepal, now she is poised to really take off in a way that Naomi never was. (I say this having played this scenario out myself.) All she needs is a grammar book and a dictionary. I question whether Lenny (remember Lenny?) would really have done so well with his miracle method if it hadn’t been preceded by traditional study.

Disadvantage: You get someone to blame for your failures. I hope the solution to this problem is obvious. Seems like in every traditional language class there is one student who plunges in and progresses three times as fast as the rest of the pack. That student might as well be you.

Advantage: Cognitive research verifies the advantages of the traditional approach. Harsh but true—that stuff you hate about school really is good for you. For example, probably one of the most effective things you can do to retain new information is take tests.

And here’s the clincher for me: what distinguishes the expert from the novice in any field of endeavor? It turns out an important difference is that novices seek out positive feedback, while experts seek out negative feedback. That’s one of the best things language teachers do for you, even though it may not feel so rewarding while it is happening: rather than applaud your awesomeness, they tell you: You’re doing it wrong. Here’s how to do it right. That’s their specialty, that’s what they do.

If you keep progressing in your chosen language, the day will come when you leave those traditional classes behind—except maybe some of a very specialized sort. But at the start of your journey a traditional class is an excellent way to get an overview of the territory and acquire some basic skills in all areas.


  1. I would like to add that if your "traditional" method only takes up a relatively small amount of your time then then is nothing stopping you investing more time in some of the other methods also and progressing faster.  Or you could learn on-line or via podcasts and jump straight into a "traditional course" a year or two ahead.

  2. The problem is, 'traditional' language classes have too many students in them.  Language students need access to a native speaker to test what they're learning, in the same way that people learning to drive need cars.  In a large class, the students are learning from each other more than they are learning from the teacher -- not a desirable situation.

    Really there needs to be only one or two students per class, perhaps four at a push.

  3. I think it would have been a better defense of traditional ways of learning languages if you had left it at that, and hadn't started comparing the methods...
    Yes, there are benefits, yes, people do learn languages the traditional way too, even though there is a lot to improve and no, it's not useless and waste of time :-)

    I'm pretty sure my 9 years of "classical" school education in English and 6 years of Swedish created a good base for my current capacity in both languages.
    But I still think spending 9/6 years creating a good base for a language is a bit too much... and that the base is just good, not excellent, and that one cannot really use the language to anything but reading (and not even very advanced reading) after having studied it for that long is not a good testimony for the classical education.

  4. Absolutely. That was one of the points I was trying to make.

  5. Please re-read my last paragraph. I don't think we are disagreeing.

  6. Qualified agreement (and disagreement) from me: You need a proficient speaker--not necessarily a native speaker. Sometimes a non-native speakers can be even more helpful because they have traveled the same path as you. 

    I rely on whatever native speakers I can find when a genuine teacher is unavailable. If nothing else, any native speaker can answer "Does this sound strange?" and "Are these two things the same?" But they can also have surprising difficulty in analyzing how their own language works. It helps if you yourself have the sophistication to know what questions to ask.

    This past summer I had a conversation with a Chinese student in Japan. The subject turned to difference in teaching styles between Chinese and Japanese teachers. She observed that in certain situations the Japanese teachers would "take the shape of a kidney," which made no sense to me. She tried hard to explain, even going so far as to draw an anatomically correct picture of a kidney, but missed the point that this metaphor of the kidney does not exist in English and perhaps only exists in Chinese.

    As to class size, surely it is true that overly large classes are less effective. I'm not sure that one or two is really the optimum. I've been in several "traditional" classes with from four to ten students, and this generally seems to work rather well. There's something nice about the instant community you get with a group of students.  

  7. So I'm curious... were you ever able to figure out what the kidney thing meant?

  8. The most effective foreign language classes I've attended have used the Communicative Approach to teaching which is a non-traditional classroom method.

    The traditional Grammar-Translation classroom method is great if you're studying to be a translator but for speaking it's likely to be detrimental.

  9. First of all , I will cheerfully agree that taking a class with an incompetent teacher or one who does not know the given language is probably a bad idea. 

    I don't agree, however, that most language teachers fall into this category. It seems that both you and I are judging from personal experience. Off the top of my head, I can remember nineteen different language teachers I have had. I'm quite certain every one of them was proficient in the language they were teaching. They had different styles, some were better than others, but only once have I quit a class because I thought it was a waste of time. The student can make things better by meeting the teacher at least half-way. My first-year Arabic teacher liked to emphasize practical speaking and listening exercises, and that was fine with me. My second-year teacher liked to give long explanations about grammar, and you know what? That was fine, too. 

    This is going back to high school. Frankly I can't remember how many teachers I had before then, but their general level of proficiency was probably lower. But such as it was, it was certainly not a total waste because after doing nothing but sitting in Spanish class and doing nothing whatsoever for years afterwards, I can still pick up a fair amount from conversations that I overhear.

    I agree with you that class does not provide enough speaking time. That is why I recommend supplementing class with a Pimsleur course or something similar. But I find it odd that you would mention how much time is spent speaking English in class because virtually every language teacher I have had has done his or her utmost to minimze the amount of English used. This must be on page 1 of the Language Teacher's Manual. And I have been impressed by their ability to employ a smattering of vocabulary and grammar to get across a wide variety of ideas, and to keep the students' level of proficiency in mind, speaking at a level just slightly outside the students' comfort zone. This is an important distinction between the language teacher and your typical random native speaker. And, as I pointed out, random native speakers are not good at answering questions beyond "Are these the same?" and "Does this sound OK?"--precisely because they are used to speaking with out deliberate effort.

    Isaac Asimov told a story about visiting a literature class where the topic of discussion was one of his stories, what the real meaning was, etc. When he spoke up and said that the meaning of the story was something total different, the professor looked at him and said, "What makes you think you know anything about it?" I mention this as a prelude to my next comment, which you may find incredible. You say that some of the language courses you took didn't teach you anything, and I think in some cases you may be right, (at least, unlike certain other people we both know, you don't have a profit motive at stake) but you might benefit without necessarily realizing it. Perhaps you picked up things more easily on your own because you were learning them for the second time.

    The first time I saw the "大是大" construction in Chinese it made instant sense. When I saw the students around me struggling to get it, I was surprised to realize that it can't be translated into English, except by a certain tone of voice. But it can be translated directly into Japanese: "大きい事は大きい". It was my Japanese background that helped me, but I was unaware of that fact at first.

  10. This is my fault: cited the wrong article. Have a look at this one:

    That being said, conceptual learning is extremely important, and can indeed be used equally well whether you are in class or not.

  11. Agree totally.

  12. Naomi probably has an edge on understanding natural speech, but
    otherwise is probably still struggling to remember the alphabet and has
    probably acquired nowhere near the vocabulary that Bertha has.
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  13. I respectfully disagree. I’ve tried studying languages in class,
    outside of class, at home, and in immersive environments. I’ve had both
    success and failure in every scenario.
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  14. After graduation, Lenny travels to France for the first time.  Naomi probably has an edge on understanding natural speech, but
    otherwise is probably still struggling to remember the alphabet and has
    probably acquired nowhere near the vocabulary that Bertha has.
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  15. I use the immersion method and take classes (when available). They both work well hand-in-hand. I think the problem with traditional classes is most students write it off as an easy pass to learning the language without ever interacting with the language outside of the classroom.

    Traditional classes really helped my grammar when it came to Japanese, because I was given new grammar forms at a constant pace and had a teacher to help me fully understand the grammar. Then, I used it outside of the classroom and it stuck.

    I wouldn't say tests are the reason why traditional class is effective. Studying for a test only helps the short term memory and after awhile it would be forgotten. Certainly, it motivates us to do well. But really, enjoying a good book, noticing the grammar form you recently learned, and absorbing it is more effective because it becomes real to you (rote memorization vs. memorization through making the material mean something to you).

    Because of the immersion method, I was able to jump into Japanese 202 when entering college (there were no classes at my high school). However, I had a lot of kanji to catch up on. The test did motivate me to study hard, and I did well on that test. After then, learning kanji became a lot easier, because of how hard I had to study in a way taught me how to study kanji effectively. So that is an example of a test being a motivator.

  16. You mentioned you spent your college class refining your language skill.

    Jr. and sr. high school language classes often are horrible. 2 of the 3 French teachers I had weren't good at teaching the language. I was sure 1 of them wasn't proficient in the language. When we had exchange students who spoke Spanish, they said the Spanish teacher's Spanish wasn't that good. I feel this might be typical of high schools.

    But colleges, depending on the quality of the program, tend to be a better use of time. The same goes for conversation schools. They are really good tools to refine your language. My Japanese classes served well for that.

    The difference is, high school language classes are forced and often there is limited choice as to what language to take. That is truly a waste of time. Especially if you have no interest in the language and the time could be spent learning the language you are interested in.

    I think I could judge what language class is good or not, even if I were a beginner in that language, just by viewing the teacher's teaching style and monitoring my own progress. But that's because of the experience I've gained over time (teaching English and learning French/Chinese/Japanese). Not all classes are a waste of time, depending on how you utilize them. But there certainly are classes that are a waste of time.

  17. As a language teacher (I teach one-to-one) , I totally agree. I speak 3  foreign languages and have met numerous methods. 

    One of the best was a Japanese course at the Japan Foundation's local office. Two native teachers taught us- absolute beginners!- who didn't speak our language. There were drills, drills and more drills- oral drills! We had words and sentences to repeat together as a class. At first, it was a little weird but I noticed how easy it was to remember those sentences or vocab items afterwards. 
    So I think that was a good example of time management. I enjoyed the community whic also helped me when I needed something. 

    As a starter, a traditional course can give you the foundations. I think most people need the sort of basics -like sentence structures- that can be learned in such a course. Learning individually (as I do now with my 4th language, Spanish:D) is sometimes difficult when you have questions and there's no-one to ask.  

    It all depends on your enthusiasm and dedication... and you'll find the method that's the best for you :)

  18. Great article! It's good to see someone step back and look somewhat objectively at language classes. Between this article and your comments, I think that this is a fair judgement (from my experience as well).

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  21. Traditional language classes are not bad but it all depends on a teacher/instructor and how he/she can engage students and make them learn the language with interest. It's also important to implement as many channels as possible but the most effective one is of course going to the country of origin and have live conversations with native speakers.