The Trials and Tribulations of Language Class

I’ve been very fortunate to recently receive French Language training at the expense of  my employer.   As many of you know, because of the official bilingualism policy, fluency in French is crucial to career advancement within the public service sector. I happen to really like school, learning, and new challenges. I even have a slight aptitude for language acquisition so I am very pleased that I have been given this opportunity to improve my French.


Our instructor is very competent and knowledgeable about the rules of French grammar and the common mistakes that Anglophones tend to make. Similarly, my fellow class mates are also highly motivated. In fact, for some their livelihood literally depends on their success in this course. If they are unable to meet a certain level of fluency their jobs could potentially be in jeopardy.  I can only imagine the stress and pressure of that situation. Because I am on contract, I do not have this additional burden resting on my shoulders. Yet so far I am finding it mildly frustrating, which is leading me to question the pedagogy behind language classes in general.


Every language class I have ever taken from Spanish, to Korean, to French I have felt a similar degree of frustration. This is completely different from my experiences conversing with native speakers of a foreign language where I felt real connections were made.


In a classroom environment the focus tends to be on rules of grammar, exercises to practice these rules, scenarios to practice speaking, and then repetition. There is always a little “free flowing conversation” but this is in the minority.


I find it takes awhile for the brain (mine in particular) to get warmed up to thinking in another language. It takes me 30 minutes of conversation to make the switch and at that point I need to speak for a sustained period of time in order to benefit. A class room setting is very much a stop start process. In an hour and a half session about fifteen minutes of speaking (on a good day) is the most I can get up to in a class room setting, which is no where near optimal.


The same is true of reading and writing practice. These exercises tend to be fill in the blank or brief passages, or quick question and answers. That quite simply does not give the student enough time to immerse themselves in the new tongue. The student also has no personal stake in the process. It is not their questions, or sentences they are examining but those of the textbook.  If I am feeling frustrated in this environment, I can only imagine the suffering that those without an aptitude for language are undergoing.


Language classes should instead be about making real connections through the new language with your class mates, instructor, and native speakers outside of the class room. The rules of grammar cannot be ignored but they should be undertaken as a means to improve these connections through more effective communication.  It is the emphasis on real connections and real communication rather than breaking language down into abstractions of rules, conjugations, and artificial scenarios that is key to what I see as a necessary shift in the way languages are taught. We are social creatures and we learned our first language from our peer group so that we could communicate with them and make connections. Why do we treat second and third languages any differently?


8 responses to “The Trials and Tribulations of Language Class

  1. Agreed!

  2. Great post.

    I suspect there are lot of factors contributing to the sorry state of language instruction.

    I think the problem is that the people who created the widely accepted standards for traditional language instruction probably 1) designed it for native speakers and then transfered it to second language teaching; 2) are system building type thinkers; 3) needed easy and efficient means to test students.

    I think learning grammar is great for people who already have a solid understanding of a language. It helps them make sense of what they already know and then learn to apply it more consistently (e.g. Oh, I see that turn of phrase that I like to use in these situations here is the subjunctive and now I can apply it over here too. Neat!)

    Teaching even fairly adept students such as yourself hardcore grammar is pointless until you are essentially a native speaker. In fact, I’d wager that it probably even gets the wrong part of the brain firing. No native speaker thinks about the tense he or she is about to use.

    The folks who designed language instruction, especially early on, probably were people who were good at languages and wanted to create complex systems to make sense of them. Why else right a grammar book? So, I reckon, the approaches adopted reflect approaches that work only for a tiny minority of folks like the crazy people who write grammars! It’s possible they weren’t even good at languages. I think grammar is neat and I really struggle to acquire languages and lose them quickly.

    Teachers are forced to grade students and grammar exercise are an easy (and totally misleading) way to assign a grade.

    Hmm, I wonder if part of the problem is that the first languages that were taught widely probably would have been the very dead languages of greek and latin.

    Last but not least a a traditional classroom environment is the worse place to learn a language. Second-language classrooms should be more like rehearsal spaces or (maybe in the future) holo-deck.

  3. I think you’re really on to something when you say it gets the wrong part of the brain firing. I wonder if that’s accurate? Kelly, as someone who has/and is studying the brain, care to jump in here? I know you’re lurking out there somewhere 🙂

    Sterling, I think your hypothesis about grammar books developing out of the desire to deconstruct dead languages is also very intriguing. It certainly seems a good way to kill a living language 🙂

  4. In my (terrible) experience of French training I found that after the course I couldn’t practice the language because all we did was conjugate verbs. So it was a big waste of tax payer’s money. Fluently bilingual people have told me you have to think in that language. The best way to do it is to be surrounded by the language and hear it every day. All I hear is English when I’m at work.
    Also, my teacher spent more time talking about his personal problems then teaching the class.

  5. Great post!

    I’m studying German, and I’m finding it considerably more difficult than learning French or Spanish has been in the past- but I’m taking a significantly more aggressive approach to it.

    Before my (sadly) once a week class, I listen to German podcasts, read over my notes, listen to German pop music. I need a good 30 minutes to ‘fire up’ my brain as well, and I’m finding that this is helping.

    The in-class exercises of verb conjugation and grammar drills aren’t helping me. Practicing my pronunciation at the grocery store with my boyfriend, on the other hand- you’re dead on, social interaction is key to successfully learning a second, third, what have you language.

    The stakes aren’t as high for me with this language; my livelihood or citizenship isn’t at risk. But sounding like a moron in front of my inlaws sure is.

  6. Thanks for writing Meg. To me that sounds like
    the perfect way to learn German. Though when
    you mention German pop. for some reason I can’t get the picture of Mike Meyers as Deeter out of my mind.

  7. Sounds like you had a bad teacher Jay. My teacher is actually professional. It is the approach that is wrong. I’m trying really hard to stay positive, but it’s hard.

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