I've been pondering Ta-Nehisi Coates's post on the purpose of foreign language education
for a few weeks now. Because its central point seems to be so true, and so "If so, where do we go from here": high school language classes are usually pretty much useless at getting people up to conversational proficiency, if that's the only contact the student has with the language (as opposed to family members, exchange programs, recreational reading/listening...)
So: there are a lot of people who took three or four years of language classes because that's what selective colleges want, and resent the classes or call themselves "bad at languages" because they didn't achieve proficiency.
I'm really interested in less conventional methods of language teaching like TPRS
and other methods focused on comprehensible input far more than the traditional "four skills" sorts of classes that try to teach speaking and writing from the beginning. I think that the evidence supporting them is pretty good -- not incontrovertible, but pretty good.
It seems to me that if schools teach foreign languages because they think students should have foreign language proficiency, educational researchers should be falling over themselves to find something better than traditional high school language classes. The current status quo is such that high school language classes serve as a base for future study for the relatively small number of students who want to get to a high level of proficiency in the future, and as weed-out classes for selective colleges, but... maybe we should just admit to ourselves that most people aren't going to get to conversational proficiency.
Maybe the first thing we need to do is disabuse people of the notion that it's somehow easy
to have a basic conversation. To have a conversation, you need to be able to parse a continuous stream of sound into individual phonemes (which may not even exist as distinct phonemes in your native language!) -- you need to match those phonemes up with words you may or may not know, and you might need to deconjugate a verb to match up "hubiera" with "haber" -- you need to parse the meaning of the sentence as a whole, and figure out an appropriate response -- then you need to retrieve those
words from your memory and arrange them in the right order. It's not easy.
There's part of me that thinks "I studied French for four years in high school and I can't have a conversation!" should be like "I studied Physics in high school and I can't build a bridge!" or "I studied English in high school and I can't write a novel" -- Fine, sure, who expected that you could?
The other part of me acknowledges that native English speakers in the US are among the least multilingual people in the world, so clearly we're doing something wrong. And it might simply be a factor of time and exposure. The thing is, you need a lot
of time and exposure. (You might
be able to get a decent amount of exposure in 45 minutes a day 5 days a week depending on the method. Most high school language classes don't do it because there's so much administrative stuff -- taking attendance, classroom discipline stuff, explaining assignments -- and too much time spent on student output. I would be curious to see longitudinal assessments of 4-year programs heavily focused on comprehensible input, but I think these methods aren't widely used enough for that.)
But really, the purpose of learning foreign language should be to communicate with other people. If classes aren't achieving that then maybe we should think seriously about what's being achieved by requiring kids to study languages. Not because language study isn't important -- obviously, I think it is! -- but, you know, don't give someone ketchup if it's really important that they eat vegetables. If you can't find some way for students to achieve something meaningful, why put them through the torture of the subjunctive?
I've been thinking about this because I've been seriously studying Chinese for almost a year now. And I won't say that I've done anything to rival any of those people who will claim it's possible to be fluent in 3 months or 6 months or whatever. But I really did not expect to be at the point where I can read children's chapter books even just to get the gist of them, or pick my way through the translated Game of Thrones
with a dictionary -- and I sure haven't been immersing myself totally, it's been more like 30-45 minutes a day at best. It's actually been kind of weird looking at both the progress I've made, and how far I still have to go.