Quick! Tell me how you learned to speak! (I’m going to assume that your native language is English because that’s the language I’m posting this in. Also, because I’m an American and we just assume that the rest of the world should do things our way.)
Seriously though. How did you learn to speak your native language? Did you memorize the basic structures of its grammar? Practice the correct conjugation of verbs? Make flashcards for the most important vocabulary words?
No, of course not. In fact, you probably can’t even remember how you learned to speak, since it most likely happened before the age of five. All that fancy stuff came later.
So why don’t schools teach foreign languages the same way?
To understand how to teach foreign languages better, we need to go back to very fundamentals of language itself. What is the purpose of language? Like, why do we need to be able to speak good, and stuff?
The purpose of language is communication. It is one of the few things that separates Homo sapiens from the rest of the Animal kingdom. Other animals communicate — some even with complex vocal structures — but none have the complexity, variety, and specificity of human language.
Once we acknowledge that fundamental truth, we need to flip our idea of formal language learning around. Grammar is good, but it’s not essential. Communication is key. Students need to be learning and practicing and trying to communicate before they are saddled with rules and structure. But the typical foreign language class is the opposite.
The typical foreign language class is also in high school, which is a mistake. In the US, over 90% of high schools offer foreign languages (even though only about 50% of students take a course), but only 25% of elementary schools offer language instruction. Not surprisingly, the percentage of middle schools sits right in the middle, making for a nice linear fit.
But learning a second (or third, or fourth, or…) language is hard. Shouldn’t we leave it to our more advanced learners with more mature brains?
Well…no. I mean, yes; learning a language is hard, but it is not the more mature brain that is more adept at language acquisition. It’s the opposite. Younger, less mature brains are more receptive to new languages. In a process called synaptic pruning, children’s brains undergo a radical change from early childhood until puberty. Synapses in the brain (connections between neurons) that are rarely used are culled, making for a more efficient network.
What this means is that, between the ages of two and six, children are incredibly receptive to new stimuli, like learning a new language. But starting at about age seven and going until puberty, it becomes increasingly effortful to learn new languages. After that, it’s the same as it is for an adult learner: stupid hard. So can someone tell me again why we wait until after synaptic pruning has occurred to teach students a second language?
In European schools, language learning starts much earlier. Sure, there’s a more practical reason for that as well — it turns out that being multilingual is an important skill in a polyglot continent — but they also implement language instruction in line with academic research. In Belgium, language lessons begin at age three and are compulsory up until the student is 18. Classes begin at age six in Norway, Italy, and Spain. And in Luxembourg, some students may take instruction in up to four different languages.
So we know language instruction needs to begin young. Like, really young. But why should we push for students to learn a foreign language? We’ve all known the student (or been the student) asking, “I’m not going to France anytime soon, so why do I need to know how to speak French?” Besides, in an increasingly globalized world, English is the lingua franca (you might not know what that means without foreign language instruction).
First — and this shouldn’t be all that surprising based on what we know about synaptic pruning — is that learning a second language literally makes the brain grow. The Swedish Armed Forces tested two groups in intensive study, one studying Arabic, Russian, and Dari and another control group studying medicine and cognitive science equally as hard. In an MRI scan after only three months, the control group (while ostensibly getting much smarter) showed no change in their brain structure. The language group, on the other hand, showed growth in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. It appears that learning another language changes the brain in ways that learning other things don’t.
And this manifests itself in the way language learning affects all other academic domains. Multilingual people have better memories than monolinguals. They also show more cognitive flexibility, approaching problems more creatively. Because language shapes the way we think, and different languages use different words to make different meanings, being fluent in multiple allows a person to see a problem through multiple perspectives. Because their brains are physically different, they are able to make connections that can allow them to form innovative solutions.
Also on the nature of different perspectives, language learning increases empathy in students. This is born not only through seeing the world in a different lens, but also through experiencing the sheer struggle of learning a whole new language.
Students learning a new language also consistently outperform control groups on standardized tests in all other subjects, including reading, English, social studies, and math. And if we know anything from the modern education industry, isn’t the whole point of school to get students to do well on standardized tests? (/s)
Okay, so if you want smarter students, teach them a new language. How, exactly?
Unlike many other subjects, language instruction is really easy. Wait, no. Strike that. Language instruction is really simple. And as Thelonius Monk said (and I stole from Jay Johnson), “Simple ain’t easy.”
There is only one true way to learn another language: immersion. (To bring this whole post full circle, that’s how you first learned to speak.) Simple. But that’s sure as hell not easy. In fact, embracing the struggle is one of the reasons why immersion is so effective.
While it is easier for younger children to learn a second language, you don’t have to be young — it’s just going to be more difficult the older you are. It turns out that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks…if that trick is to speak, and if that old dog works really hard. Actually, accepted research suggests that being bilingual can improve your memory in old age and help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, so language learning might even be more important the older you get.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, too often language classes focus on grammar and vocabulary — the structure of the language — instead of communication. It fits with how educators design most of their classes: the teacher is at the head of the classroom, directing work, and disseminating important information. The student’s role is to absorb, practice, and maybe participate. We tend to shy away from the productive struggle, because that’s messy and it may even make us look like bad teachers.
But that struggle is exactly what makes learning stick. Professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago tested these very two approaches to foreign language instruction. Using a made-up language, the experimenters divided the subjects into two groups. One learned the language using a traditional, structural approach, while the other learned through immersion. While all of the subjects learned the language, only the immersion group had brain processes in the same pattern as native speakers. Even more remarkably, six months after the experiment and with no further instruction in the language (which, I should remind you, was fictional, so it’s not like they were practicing by speaking to other people), only the immersion group still performed well on tests.
And with the explosion of various forms of technology, it’s never been easier to go immersive in the classroom. Actually, wait…before that, the first thing that needs to take place is that the students need to be the ones speaking in class, not the teacher. They need to be the ones directing the pace and the flow of the content. They need to be the ones riffing off of each other and making up Spanglish as they go. They need to be the ones struggling for meaning. When they embrace the struggle — when you embrace the struggle — then students will grow.
Anyway, back to tech. Never in our history have we had so many immersive tools at our fingertips! Technology breaks down time and space; it figuratively shrinks the world so that we can access it on whatever device we have.
Apps like Babbel, Duolingo, or Rosetta Stone bring simple practice to students’ fingertips. The News In Slow… suite offers language learning based on current events. Youtube is an international platform; there are seemingly infinite videos in any language imaginable. And many of them have subtitles!
For even more immersive content, why not talk to a native speaker? Skype and Google Hangouts make this more readily available than ever before. If scheduling a speaking partner is a problem, then how about a pen pal? ePals is your jam.
Or, better yet, why not go to the country of your choice and immerse yourself in that language (and culture, and society, and…)? Your school might not offer much in the way of foreign exchange; or, if it was like mine, it’s a very one-way program — foreigners come here, but Americans don’t go there. That’s okay, because the US Government does. The State Department’s National Security Initiative for Youth is an immersion program with the backing of Uncle Sam. (Well, maybe that’s not such a glowing endorsement…)
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the point is that immersive opportunities are out there, and they’re more plentiful than they’ve ever been before. As educators, it’s your job to bring them into the classroom — which might mean tearing down walls, instead of building them up.