The Failure of Traditional Second Language Training

    Second Language

    Let’s discuss today how unsuccessful the second language training is within the traditional education. And I will speak mostly of English, as it is the international language and people all over the world who are not mother-tongue English speakers, learn it to have more opportunities in life.

    Every government understands how it is important that children should know a second language, and realizes this idea through the public school curriculum. In most countries children start learning English or other foreign language at the age of 8, and a few years ago the average age was increased up to 10-11. The mandatory tests at various stages towards the end of high school include test in foreign language comprehension and composition. Every student who wants to continue his study in medicine, science and any other subject must score well in English in particular. In fact, it is difficult to secure a place to study anything at the university level without sufficient English mastery.

    The system highlights the importance of proficiency in English or any other language. But ironically learning foreign languages using such kind of school education is doomed to failure because of certain reasons:

    1. Students are expected to master all aspects of learning (reading, writing, grammar, speaking, understanding and phonics) at the same time.
    2. Students have lack of practice in individual speaking.
    3. Students don’t receive enough direct feedback.
    4. Pronunciation is poor.
    5. Inhibition leads to failure.
    6. Traditional education focuses on correction.

    Let’s discuss these points in details.

    Students are expected to master all aspects of learning at the same time

    How do babies learn to speak? Do they need first learn letters and grammar? No! They start learning their mother tongue by first hearing the sounds for a great deal of times a day month by month, and later they start pronouncing separate sounds, words, sentences thus mastering the speech year by year. And what happens to a 10 year old child in his class environment? He is expected to hear sounds and say symbols (letters) perhaps even from an alphabet that entirely differs from his native one; to learn abstract grammar rules that are illogical and confusing. Listening, comprehension, reading, writing and (often the most difficult) oral reproduction of those new and alien sounds are all different skills – so different that they stimulate different areas of the brain.

    Sivan tells about his experience in grade 4. “The teacher drew a picture of a sheep on the blackboard, wrote the word ‘sheep’ next to it and pronounced this word. I had no idea what she was doing. I lived in a city area and we didn’t have sheep wandering all around in our neighborhood. I couldn’t make the mental leap between that simple chalk picture and a real animal. As for the words, I didn’t even recognize those symbols as letters. And the sound? What was that woman doing? There were many things for me to cope with at the same time.“ Sivan didn’t recognize letters as he lived in Israel and his native language Hebrew uses a different alphabet.

    The situation has changed for better and Sivan’s children won’t get that stress (at least partially), because children in Israel and Europe now have an opportunity to speak only English for a year before being introduced to reading and writing. This is due in large part to the influence of different children’s developmental centers that promote proper methodology for teaching spoken English language. This change is an example of a grassroots initiative, because the parents exposed to this teaching method in the private educational market started demanding better quality of school education. Though watching their children succeed in private classes, the parents now have and increased awareness of early education options, and this awareness, in turn, compelled the traditional educational system to introduce some changes.

    It is important for children to first adjust their ear to the language (by hearing it), then speak it and only then read and write. This is the natural way of learning the native language. This is the order the second, third or fourth language should be learned in. And what’s important, the younger the child is, the better he will succeed in learning.
    Additional social and political factors encourage early language classes. For example, the European Union issued a White Paper in 1995 that positively recommended the need for EU children to learn two foreign languages in kindergartens to support multiculturalism. Over the years many other papers were issued culminating in Piccolingo in 2009 – a campaign of the European Union to develop skills and awareness of foreign language in preschoolers.

    Moreover, all recent studies of reading and writing state that children should first get used to the phonology of the language in order to read and write well then. For example, if a child has been read lots of nursery rhymes he does better in reading and writing later on.

    Students have lack of practice in individual speaking

    Sophisticated and subtle interplay of vocalizing and hearing are necessary to learn to speak a language. We hear ourselves and always adjust our efforts. But in most classrooms students are asked to speak or recite in groups, and the teacher doesn’t have an opportunity to hear an individual student’s voice, and moreover, this is even damaging, for the student cannot hear his own voice well. One-on-one speaking is very limited. And unfortunately a few students end up dominating whatever individual speaking time is available. Shy and insecure students fade into the background and may spend years of classes and not have the opportunity to hear themselves speak a foreign language.

    Students don’t receive enough direct feedback

    In a typical classroom with 30-40 students, teacher doesn’t have time to work one-on-one, and students are expected to repeat things in groups letting verbally shy ones to pretend that they are participating. Even in special language labs students can work without a teacher who would directly monitor their progress. This could be compared to a family where a toddler or infant receives direct feedback from his parents. In often impersonal atmosphere of overcrowded classrooms, many students go through years of language classes without achieving a minimum level of fluency in speaking.

    Poor pronunciation

    Another problem is lack of native speakers. Usually teachers in schools and universities didn’t ever talk to native speakers in their life, and they speak the language they teach with an awful accent of their mother tongue. Therefore the teacher’s example upon which students must model their efforts is flawed to begin with and his language can’t help students master their pronunciation in any way.

    The lack of consistency in accent is a minor problem compared to late-start acquisition. The ability to correctly pronounce the sounds of a language are set well before age eight. There is no genetic predisposition to distinguish between English l and r sounds properly by a Japanese adult, for example. Research shows that Japanese babies can clearly differentiate between these sounds and loose this ability once they begin to speak their mother tongue.

    Other fundamental linguistic elements as mouth shape and placement of the tongue on the palate are developed at a very early age. After age six the brain’s ability for language acquisition is significantly reduced. A rare adult can imitate a correct accent in another language but this requires intensive vocal training, a rare gift for languages, and the desire to expend a significant conscious effort.

    Do you remember the baby talk? Those early preverbal sounds are the natural and painless way an infant prepares his articulation apparatus to imitate the sounds if his native language.

    Inhibition leads to failure

    Older students are more likely to be shy and fearful to speak foreign language in a classroom. Again, this is due to the overcrowded classrooms and poor emphasis on verbal skills, so the students can successfully go to college without being able to be understood in even the simplest sentences. As written tests emphasize reading comprehension and writing ability, there are lots of school graduates throughout the world who can read English at high school level, but are not able to ask for directions or order in a restaurant.

    A Russian engineer Leonid came to Bob, a writer in the same company, with a question about Microsoft Word. He wanted to know the purpose of a design element that he pronounced as ahn chore. Bob, whose native language was English, was stumped. He was thinking of anchovies or ‘a chore’, like a task, and trying to understand what Leonid was talking about. He finally got up and walked with him back to the computer. There on the screen was a highlighted anchor mark. Leonid was able to read and understand absolutely difficult technical material in English, but he didn’t know how to pronounce many simple, still irregularly-spelled English words.

    This second language awkwardness is painful to observe. The discomfort of language barrier makes every new class of students worry. “Will I be laughed at?” they think.

    Repeated failure to pronounce tricky foreign sounds or to create sentences with the correct syntax is the reason why aversion to language classes is developed in students.

    Traditional education focuses on correction

    Feedback in the education in the Western World is generally limited to correction, i.e. pointing to what is wrong in homework or test. As finding mistakes is emphasized on, students (already suffering from language barrier) fear correction every time they open their mouths.

    There are many situations when a person works in a foreign company and speaks their language with mistakes. Every time he is pointed to his mistakes after every spoken word, he feels stupid, awkward and embarrassed, eventually he becomes totally tongue-tied and starts avoiding speaking. And he needs someone, who will not notice his mistakes but just talk to him in order to start speaking without fear again.

    And if a professional adult feels this way, imagine how the problem is exacerbated in children and teenagers!

    These six reasons work against gaining successful fluent language skills thus underscoring the fundamental failure of this traditional education method for teaching second language.

    So if you want to protect your child from getting stress while learning second language at school, give him an opportunity to learn it as early as possible in the childhood. But if you have missed this moment and your child already goes to school, try to create an environment of that language you want him to learn. One man, I once knew, told me the way his son of school age has learned English –every day he watched original films without translations even not understanding a word.

    Be patient and consistent and results will not take a long time to appear.

    Did you have your own experience in learning second language at school? How did you feel about that? Share your story with us!


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