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?