Death to the language textbook!

I am not advocating for a complete ban of textbooks for language-learning purposes, but the manner in which we approach foreign language education needs to radically change. I find the current landscape of language learning particularly frustrating because I love the endeavor of language acquisition. Having studied numerous languages, both in and out of the classroom, I encounter numerous glaring issues with the pedagogy commonly utilized in the United States. 

Students are not engaged with the language in its vast potential, but rather stick their noses in the textbook as teachers drill through grammar points and vocabulary lists. Such a divorce from the wonders of language is upsetting when I encounter the results: low retention rates or, worse, language amnesia. It is not uncommon for Lawrentians to lose their second language a year or two after leaving the classroom, and I find it truly disheartening.

There is a huge bias for text in language classes. Even when the professor orates instructions in the given language, most of the course is based on the textbook and written information. When I begin learning a new language, I make a point of acquainting myself with its sounds, accents, phonetics and whatever else; such an approach is nonexistent in the classroom. Changing your American accent is not necessary, but I like to think that some phonetic competency creates a greater appreciation for linguistic diversity. Shooting for a native-like accent is a whole other topic and is nearly impossible for most adults anyway. 

This, of course, is tied to the issue of teaching a language to a broad audience; children have teachers from the get-go: their parents, who devote endless love, attention and opportunities to practice language proficiency. Compared to childhood, the language classroom is but a meager environment. One major part of adulthood, though, is independence and self-sufficiency. With that logic, language learning should involve a reciprocal relationship between teacher and student. Experts in a given language can act as a communication partner, a clarifier and a guide; students need to put in the effort of actively studying and supplementing their learning, rather than merely completing the class exercises and vocabulary drills. The end goal of a language course should be to introduce the language to the students, but also to provide the skills necessary for sustained learning beyond the classroom.

With that said, what does my own independent language studying look like? I am constantly searching for the answers to that question, as my time allotment changes every term and I discover more about my preferred styled of learning. There are some basic guidelines I follow, though. Utilizing technology is invaluable, especially for commonly spoken languages like Spanish. For listening, I use Duolingo Podcasts, Netflix and YouTube; it is important to hear a variety of voices on different topics within different contexts. For general practice, I use Duolingo and Quizlet, though there are more advanced methods for long-term memory hacks — for example, Goldlist. It is also good to find music in your target language that you actually enjoy.

Besides technology, the single best way to reinforce your language learning is by talking to people. That is what languages are for, after all: communication. Make friends, join a language-learning community, attend a club, see tutors or go to language tables. I also occasionally use Hello Talk, a social media app for native speakers to speak in their target tongue. Of course, nothing beats going abroad and having constant exposure. During breaks, I make a habit of participating in the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program, wherein travelers reach out to a farm in a given country and receive room and board in exchange for part-time labor. I did this in Peru and my comfort in speaking and listening to Spanish increased dramatically. There are many ways to approach language learning, but it is certainly easier with love and guidance.

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