New approaches may facilitate learning second language
Published: Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 17:09
I think there’s an interactive element missing from most of our foreign language curriculums. After studying for six years taking advanced Spanish classes throughout high school and five classes at University of Delaware, I felt fine reading signs and listening to tour guides while I studied abroad in Spain this past summer, but I struggled terribly with interacting.
The first day in Madrid, I walked into a cafe thinking I knew Spanish well enough from my six years of advanced-level classes to ask what the server might recommend to someone on a gluten-free diet. Evidently I was wrong—I was floored when I only understood half of what he was saying, and I knew it wasn’t just his accent. I simply wasn’t as fluent as I thought I was. Maybe I could have communicated more effectively by writing him a timed essay explaining my situation and asking the same question, but I didn’t feel adequate speaking and responding—until I practiced and learned the hard way.
There seems to be no substitute to living in a foreign country to learn its language, but at the same time, I wonder why we don’t try to learn foreign languages the way we learn our native language. I agree it’s important to study grammar, and maybe even do all of those painfully repetitive exercises for homework every night, in order to build a base of vocabulary and understanding the language. But at the same time, I think we might learn a language better if we try to use it instead of memorizing it.
In the classroom, I’ve learned Spanish almost entirely through translation. But when I began to learn English, it was with tangible things. I’d point to something and someone would tell me what it is and explain it to me. In Spain, I learned the same way. I didn’t learn difference between “chorizo,” “salchicha” and “morcilla” by translation—I learned by tasting them. I learned what a “fregadero” was when I helped my host family clean the dishes. Though I’m sure I’ve studied that word thousands of times for various exams, it never truly resonated until I had actually used it and applied it to tangible things.
I’m not sure if I’m more of a visual, audio, or kinesthetic learner, but when it comes to learning a native language, I think everyone relies on all three strategies, and our classes seem to forget about the third. I think the most useful exercise I’ve ever done in Spanish class was a job-interview simulation in Spanish. There was hardly any time for preparation, so it forced our class to think on our feet. Moreover, it created a practical use for all the language tools I had been acquiring.
Consistent practice with simulations like this gives students confidence and skills they need for interactions that they experience when using a second language in the real world. Every class I’ve taken has had oral exams, skits, and presentations which students are given time to prepare for. But we don’t rehearse real-world conversations or even brief interactions. To prepare for them. it helps more to perform problem-solving situations, such as one student taking on the role of a car salesman and the other as a customer. One student is a patient, the other a doctor trying to prescribe the right medicine.
I know as well as any foreign language student that performing improvised scenarios like that in front of a class is daunting, and making mistakes is embarrassing. But I now know as well as anyone who has ever lived in a foreign country how much more embarrassing it is to struggle with a language in a real-world scenario. The way I learned Spanish—in school and in Spain—was by taking risks and experimenting. Making mistakes is an unavoidable element of learning, but it’s better to mess up in practice rather than the game. That said, I think many of my classmates sacrifice experimenting for a better grade. More grammatical errors in oral exams and writing assignments means more points taken, so to avoid that, we tend to keep our sentences as elementary and to the book as possible. I think students would benefit more from being awarded points for good usage of grammar and making an effort to emulate native speakers and writers. It encourages them to use the language to the best of their ability, which is how we communicate in the real world.
In my experience, Spanish teachers and professors have always encouraged students to pursue the language, but the goal of every course is to make students successful. We seem to view success as more of an academic achievement than an intercultural journey. If the reason behind requiring all students to take foreign language courses is to give them exposure to a foreign culture, why don’t our courses focus more on preparing students to do that? Putting two beginner-level Spanish students together and expecting them to hold a fluent conversation is like expecting two beginner-level pilots to start flying a plane. But pilots aren’t expected to fly a plane based on an instruction manual either. They usually take some sort of simulation course before getting off the ground.
I think interactive preparation in class would significantly ameliorate the sink-or-swim nature of learning by living in a foreign country. This sort of emphasis fosters collaboration, encouragement, experimenting and learning, whereas our current focus on flawless essays and test scores is based on individual achievement, memorization, and formulaic learning. The latter approach works well for learning math perhaps, but even with all the rules and grammar that govern our languages, communication is always an art, not a science.
Before becoming fluent in my second language, I always thought that learning Spanish was a process with stages that each student overcomes with time, discipline, and study. I saw reaching the end of this process as an ambitious goal, and becoming fluent an achievement, like acing an advanced level course or completing a Spanish minor. But I realize now that it’s an ongoing process to improve my Spanish—just like the ongoing process to improve my writing in English. I think there are a lot of people who study foreign languages for the wrong reasons, and many others give up their hopes of learning a second language because they become frustrated by how difficult and discouraging the process can be. It was, and still is, a difficult process, but I think classes could facilitate this process by emphasizing preparation and encouraging students to dare to experiment.