This is a part of my Language Learning series.
What are language classes?
I realize that asking this question might seem silly. Most of us already have an idea of what language classes are since we are all forced to take them as some sort of elective requirement in school.
But what I mean is, what are they on a deeper level as a form of language education?
Typically the idea is that a single teacher drills language practice for a group of students. But this can take many different forms. Just the student:teacher ratio alone can be anything from 2:1 to 50:1 (I’ve been in both). The method of instruction can be rote memorization, grammar study, TPRS, immersion-based, and everything in between.
So, it is hard to really codify all language classes into a single category because there are many ways to teach them as there are language instructors. The evaluation of a language class then is more about the specific method of instruction being used in the classroom than it is about the fact that it is a language class.
The appeal of language classes
Personally, I like them because I like taking classes, not because they are effective at teaching me a language.
I like the process of being in an environment of learning languages with other people and while not all of the language classes I have taken have been particularly effective at getting me to a high level, they’ve definitely provided me with inspiration and motivation to continue my studies.
But I know that a lot of people find that language classes are not effective for their process regardless of the specific methodology being used. I get it. In fact, I actually agree with it. They aren’t effective to help me learn a language. But they are effective with helping me enjoy a language. So, as long as I know the reason I’m taking the class and not making any assumptions about what it won’t provide, then I think that is okay.
When language classes work
As I said before, language classes can work in certain situations depending on the methodology. Here is an example of how I think a beginner language class could be used to effectively improve your level in a language:
- Less focus on grammar. As a newbie to the language learning verb conjugations isn’t effective. It is better to learn the language organically and then focus on grammar down the line.
- Less focus on speaking. I would emphasize listening and immersion — especially actively listening to comprehensible input.
- Less focus on dialogues. I think learning through stories is more effective, like with TPRS.
So, if you get rid of grammar, speaking and dialogues what is left?
Stories, comprehensible input, and listening.
If a teacher is trained to use these methods in a classroom environment, then I think it can be a really effective way to learn a language.
Evaluating this approach
In my main “Language Learning” post I said that I have two main things that I am using to evaluate the effectiveness of these various methods:
- Is this a natural way for human beings to learn a language? In other words, is this how we learned our first language(s)?
- Have I found this method to be effective in my own studies? What is my own experience with this method?
First, a classroom is generally not a natural way to learn languages. You acquire a language through observation/listening, and then through active practice. If a classroom is adapted to utilize these processes then it can be effective and natural, but unfortunately most language classes don’t do this.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, classroom language learning hasn’t been very effective for me. I’ve taken classes in Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish, and none of them actually propelled my level to a considerable degree.
The one thing they did do was give me motivation and interest in continuing my studies. They also helped me meet new friends, which is nice.
I know that language instruction is starting to change. I’ve seen evidence of it at the University where I teach, and I’ve seen it expressed in a lot of different schools here and there. So, while we’re not quite there yet, I think things are progressing and eventually language learning classes will actually provide the level boost that so many of us hope for.