The Truth About Schools & Foreign Languages: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Are schools still relevant in teaching us foreign languages in the 21st century? Let's find out together.

The Truth About Schools & Foreign Languages: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Foreign languages stimulate your brain. They allow you to enter a whole different world. Some say that each new language you learn brings out another side of you – with each language you learn you earn a new personality.

Learning foreign languages in your teenage years varies from country to country, state to state and school to school. Depending on where you live, the educational system offers a certain type of learning experience. There are numerous cases where learners were unable to hold on to what they had learned when it came to modern languages. So why would that be? What’s wrong with the formal educational system?

Schools: How the educational system works

Schools were built out of our thirst for knowledge. There are usually two ways schools work: some schools have mandatory subjects, while in others the children choose what subjects they can take up. Subjects may vary, from math to physics and chemistry – but all give you the possibility to learn foreign languages.  

But are schools still relevant in teaching us foreign languages? Especially in the 21st century. In order to get an idea of how schools can fall short in teaching you foreign languages, you must look at the root of the problem.

school bus scaled

This is the way schools work for decades: we sit students down in a classroom with tens of other students and bring in a teacher to offer them valuable information. This same method of teaching goes from any subject. But can the same method be applied to multiple subjects? What about when learning a new language?

Let’s begin with why language classes are beneficial for children. First off, it is mandatory for you to be in school, to participate in class, so you are somehow pushed to learn. Not only this, but you also have to learn because grades can determine your future. All in all, you must have at least basic knowledge to pass the class.

But pushing someone to do something against their will can backfire. While some see something that’s mandatory as motivation, others see this as obliging students to do what they don’t want to do. This can create negative feelings towards the language itself. In the end, can you blame people for hating something they were forced to learn?

We all know that we are better at learning something we are intrinsically motivated to learn. So, what if your school only teaches Spanish and French and you would love to learn Japanese?  You will definitely learn Japanese faster, but you’ll be judged by your ability to learn other languages.  This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Where do language classes fall short?

The first thing that pops into mind is the interaction. By this, I mean that even if the teacher is supposed to be there to help everyone, they most often come to class, start teaching and work closely with the best students. This sets aside the other students, also part of the class who end up slacking. This missing interaction leaves the others out of the conversation, so out of paying attention. So what do you do when you don’t pay attention to what is being taught? Anything else!  

In this day and age, we hear about children and students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) who cannot focus on what is being taught, no matter how much a teacher tries to help them. There are so many distractions in the class, from classmates to smartphones, games, Facebook, Snapchat and much more. Maybe these problems existed in the past as well, but we didn’t have names for them. But a lot of people say that this lack of attention is a product of the school system.

If you ask most 30 olds about why they haven’t learned this or that language, they’ll start a speedy rant on how the school system is to blame. They’ll blame it on the teachers, their lack of involvement, their lack of tact in teaching children – and it doesn’t end there! The books used are outdated, they don’t keep up with the times and with the pace of a language learner, and they are short of good material that can be taught.

This would be just the first few items on a long list of issues that need to be improved. But have no fear, there is a silver lining!

Foreign languages: How tech can save the day

While school might have failed you, technology is here to give you a helping hand. Most language learners have now tapped into the wonderful world of language apps. And they’re everywhere! On your smartphone, your tablet, your PC – even on your SmartTV and on your Virtual Reality headset. These technologies can help anyone who’s serious about learning a second language get one step closer to fluency.

Where schools fall short, technology complements your language journey and can even teach you a language faster, cheaper and in a more fun way. Think about this for a moment: in school, you might have only a 1-hour language class every week. This adds up to only about 20 hours of language learning per semester or about 40 hours per year. If we subtract the time you doze off in class the numbers will be much lower. Either way, those are extremely low numbers for someone wanting to become fluent in a new language. But with is where technology comes in. With tech, there’s nothing stopping you from learning. You can even do 40 hours worth of Spanish or French lessons in a month! That’s what I call accelerated learning.

Mondly - Learn foreign languages free online

With over 20 million downloads, Mondly is one of the most popular language apps in the world. What sets it apart is not only that it provides for 34 languages, but also that it has many attractive features where you learn with pictures, you can track your progress, listen to native voice recordings and have simulated conversations within the app. Mondly also helps you learn a language in Virtual Reality (VR) by having conversations with virtual native speakers.

So if you feel dissatisfied with what school has taught you, go online and begin your first language lesson today!

2 comments on “The Truth About Schools & Foreign Languages: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. Thanks for your article! I’m french and I’m interested in speaking a lot of languages, even though I just understand English. Although I learn German in school, I must confess I am ashamed not to speak it fluently after 7 years of learning. But you’re right, language classes fall short. In fact, each pupil should have a teacher just for him! So the tech could be this individual teacher we need! 😉

    1. Tell me about it! I’ve done 8 years of French in school and I can’t even have a basic conversation. I still know so grammar though, but that’s not really useful in real life.

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