Language Learning: Issues in the US

Because of my job, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many learners from different countries. Most of the time, these learners have been exposed to many different languages whether that be through friends, personal interest, or formal lessons. While you can’t say that all of them are bilingual or multilingual, you can definitely say that language learning is more infused into their culture than it is in ours.

When you compare their abilities to the average monolingual American, both the past and future seem bleak. Being a language teacher myself, I’ve seen many professionals in the same field being thrown into a sense of hopelessness due to the devaluation of what they aim to do through their lessons. The source of all their problems can usually be broken down into two categories over which they hold no control: lack of money and lack of interest.

Now my husband has gotten me to change quite a bit from who I used to be meaning that I now listen to country music. There are many songs that talk about storms passing and heartbreaks mending and their positivity is just so darn catchy. I’d like to believe that language education in the US is not a dead art but rather a rapidly evolving one. These issues that we’ve held a grudge against for so long thinking they were ruining our lives are just signs letting us know that transformation is happening and old methods are dying to make way for better ones. Let’s examine.

1. There is not enough funding in the US that goes towards language education. Yes, of course. We could all use more money. But, what we’re really lacking is the research, the tools, the tested methods, the proven strategies. Yes, if one looks through Amazon there are many books geared towards language teaching and how to do successfully lead a class. But where is the consensus? We don’t just need a pile of surface-level analytics but deeply ingrained proven practices. And we don’t just a consensus on it but a national implementation of it.

If you look at second language acquisition theories, they’re all pretty new compared to other fields of study. A large part of the published work that has had a great impact on the field was done in the 70’s or after. It was not until the late 1960’s that researchers began exploring methods for language education that were not based on rote-learning exercises. (Myles, Florence. “The development of theories of second language acquisition.” Language Teaching 43. 3 (2010): 320 - 332. Online) I remember reading about Krashen’s contributions to SLA in my MAT classes and seeing him as the God of Language Learning/Teaching. I would look up at the heavens and thank him for all of the progressive work he was able to accomplish 200 years ago. Turns out he’s still doing great work because he’s alive and kicking. This realization completely changed my view of thinking. All the various answers I had read for the one questions I had of how to teach a language were all babies. They’ve just now gotten out into the world.

So, we don’t just need money. We need research and analytics. But, most of all, we need time. Time to test out practices and see the effect. Time to convince the world and academics that language learning isn’t the same as learning math or history. It’s completely different and therefore must be taught and evaluated in a radical way. It’s a small, young field and it needs time to grow and mature.

2. Americans think that being bilingual is useless and everyone should just speak English. Maybe I’m just hanging out with the right group of people and everyone else isn’t but there is not one (educated) person who actually thinks this. Yes, I am surrounded with people who constantly joke about this but, again, no one (educated) actually believes this. How did this become a national stereotype?

I’m at that age where whenever my husband and I meet up with a group of friends, we start talking about our high school years, reminiscing on the good times. One out of the many, many regrets (often related to hairstyle choices) that people have is not paying enough attention in French class, skipping one too many Spanish classes, or not signing up for the language immersion trip to Germany. People (90% of them) may not enjoy the work that it takes to learn a language. But they enjoy traveling, they enjoy learning about other people, other customs, other traditions and these are all benefits that most people realize they’ve missed out on for not knowing a second language. Or at least could have experienced in a more authentic way had they known one. Everyone I have talked has had this realization so I have a really hard time believing this very very erroneous statement.

Besides, what if the reason Americans haven’t learned a second language is because we’ve been doing it wrong all along? I don’t mean wrong as in putting down language education or not putting enough emphasis on it. I mean, what if one teacher has been trying to teach 35 students how to conjugate a verb in the preterite for a whole semester? What if a student has been staring at the same page on a language workbook when all they want to say is “I like you” to their crush? If this has been happening then we’ve been addressing the subject all wrong and done a disservice to all of our students. Not for lack of effort, not for lack of desire, not for lack of motivation but simply a lack of research and a lack of a successfully proven and implemented system.

Now let’s take a break from the country music and leave the positivity aside for a minute. I’m firmly on the team of having every single child in the world be introduced to a second language from their infant years and on. But I’m also really starting to question the successfulness of language education in a traditional school setting. Large classes? Super challenging. 50 minute classes every other day? Not efficient. Expecting every single student to be on the same ability the whole year? Will never happen. That’s not how language works. Testing? Useless. Standards? A ridiculous amount of unnecessary pressure. Maybe the next step is simply to question the traditional school setting itself but I’ll stop here.

It’s taken me years to realize but this is why language learning for me happens best when it’s done through a personalized approach. Through the use of an intimate setting of just you and your tutor, a great conversation infused with your interests, an honest vision of where you and where you want to be, language can be mastered and a system can be created.

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Dalton, GA, USA