Language in Schools

In college, I minored in French.  I love the language and spent six weeks living in France after my senior year of college.  In some ways, one of my biggest regrets is not spending more time over there so I could have a more enriched knowledge of the language.  However, I also know that it would’ve been to hard for me to be away from home for that long.  Though now that Michael and I are making plans to live in Greece at some point, perhaps I could make my way back for sometime.  Due to my interest of French and Michael’s passion for Greek, the process of language learning often comes up a lot in our conversations.  After watching a video about learning languages and theories on the best way to do it, I felt compelled to reflect upon it.  This video felt that the best thing to do at first was to just speak and not worry about grammar.  The grammar would come later.  Thinking about my own school experience with language, I felt compelled reflect:


In school, as many know, we are often drilled with grammar despite the fact that much evidence out there shows that conversation and oral practice is a much better path to fluency.  My days in French class consisted of verb charts and memorized conversations, neither of which led to much language fluency amongst myself or my classmates.  The question is, if this format of teaching does not seem to produce the desired results then why are we teaching in this way?

An unfortunate element to schools today is the fact that assessments are required not only formally by administrative teams, state and national laws or accredidation boards, they are also required by students and parents themselves.  Students and parents typically judge progress and success based on numerical grades instead of authentic qualitative data.  This assessment-orientated school atmosphere may have led language classes to become the giant grammar charts that they are.  It is much easier to assign a grade based on grammatical errors (or non errors) than on a student’s speaking skills.  One is much more objective than the other.  Due to this, oral speaking cannot be the focus because how would a teacher be able to showcase the student’s progress and level in one letter?  Would that letter grade be based in relation to other students’ levels?  Would there be a set number of phrases that a student would have to learn by the end of the year?  Or would a student have to take home a practice chart to fill out how often they practice their language?  None of these offer very solid ways of assessment.

Conversely, perhaps I am thinking in the wrong direction.  Perhaps schools are doing nothing wrong because it is not their goal to teach oral fluency but to teach the structure and grammar of a language.  This would not quite make sense in the fact that in all other academic disciplines, the structure of a subject is taught and then usually put into practice.  For example, in English classes, we are taught grammatical rules, but then we put those rules to the test by using them in authentic situations.  This does not often happen in foreign language classes until the collegiate level.

While spending time in France, I felt embarrassed when I said that the only other language I knew besides English was French, when most of the French students my age were working on their third language.  Is the way we teach foreign language a reason for the fact that we fall behind in this area?  Or is there just not a drive amongst Americans to learn other languages?


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