Three Reasons Why Language-Learning Doesn’t Work in Schools (and How to Change It)
Like me—and most people—you may have experienced how the in-school foreign language method doesn't achieve the desired results. It's common to hear people say, “Even though I took Spanish for six years in school, I don’t speak it.” Such expectations for the school system have become the norm. It's an inefficient learning environment where parents can leave their kids for daycare. In reality, so much can be done—and fairly easily—to improve massively on how we teach kids languages. 😉
Kids are usually accused of not being active or engaged enough. But what we see based on research is that the reason that in-school language-learning doesn't work isn’t actually the kids’ fault at all. They are instead deeply connected to the methods with which languages are taught in schools.
Kids aren’t learning languages quickly enough (or at all). This blog post will address how and why the education system is at fault for this unfortunate situation and what needs to change in order to improve it.
It's Not the Kids’ Fault
When parents or teachers try and fail to teach kids, it's easy to accuse the kids of being demotivated, disengaged, or uninterested.
But based on research, low engagement, low interest, and low motivation are not things that the kids can simply improve on themselves. It's the environment that needs to take these things into account and use them as tools for better learning results. 🚀
The education system creates an environment that expects kids’ engagement, motivation, and interest without any conscious methods or approaches that elicit those things from them. Quite frankly, this is twisted.
Instead of taking responsibility for creating an environment that yields great results, we as educators and leaders dismiss this responsibility and put it on kids who have no knowledge, tools, or interest in implementing methods that would engage and interest them in learning something. It's like asking your neighbor to fix your electricity grid—you wouldn't let them do that, now, would you?
As you can see, this system is pretty twisted. Instead of supporting learners, we accuse them. ☝️
Just think about your workplace. If you're not engaged, motivated, or inspired, you feel it's not your fault, right? And indeed, it's your CEO’s fault—it's their responsibility to engage and motivate you with various tools, be it salary, vision, team chemistry, etc. Even though the tools may differ in schools, why would we expect that it works differently with kids?
With that in mind, let's analyze three reasons why the school system doesn’t give the language-learning results it should.
Reason 1: Focusing on mistakes instead of achievements
This is the most apparent reason—you have surely experienced it yourself. Just ask yourself: In your in-school foreign language classes, did the teacher focus on celebrating your achievements and providing a sense of success or avoiding mistakes?
Just think about test corrections. What is marked in red? Your correct answers or the incorrect ones?
It’s the incorrect answers that are the focus.
You might ask, "Why is this such a big deal?" Of course, we need to avoid mistakes if we want to learn a language, right?
Wrong. Based on years of research, we know that focusing on avoiding mistakes will lead to learners who:
feel demotivated and disengaged due to a lack of a sense of achievement,
are afraid of expressing themselves due to a fear of making mistakes—because if you don't say anything, you can’t make mistakes—and
feel disengaged because in comparing themselves to classmates who are “better” (i.e., they make fewer mistakes), they can't feel successful.
As you can see, there’s a common denominator that creates most of the obstacles to great language-learning results: We focus on avoiding mistakes, thus keeping learners from reaching good results. That is crazy.
Let’s shift our focus: Think about the way you learned your mother tongue. Did your parents focus on your mistakes? Did you get graded? No, it was nothing like that, right?
Why is that? As human beings, learning processes are most natural when they’re based on imitating, making mistakes, imitating more, and then arriving at the “correct answer.” It's a process that our education system has discarded; it ignores the way we naturally function as human beings. This needs to change. ☝️
Reason 2: A teacher can't really teach twenty kids at once
I was a language teacher for many years in several schools. My experience was super interesting because, while teaching French, I was also creating the Speakly methodology. Discovering the way the school system functions was a staggering wake-up call for me: The problems encoded into the DNA of in-school language-learning becomes crystal clear when you analyze it. 😉
As a budding language scientist standing in front of a classroom of twenty kids, I couldn't help but feel confused about how to account for each of these twenty kids’ needs efficiently. They were all thrown together into an "average learner" category where I couldn't address their individual:
memory acquisition abilities,
engagement strategies, or
And the truth is that it can't be done. A single teacher can't account for all these aspects for each student. Thus, we lump all the students together into an “average learner” category, and we try to help this “average learner” in all kinds of ways. But in trying to make something work for everyone, it actually works for no one. ☝️
At the same time, it would be so simple to improve this right now—today. Keep reading to discover practical solutions. 🚀
Reason 3: Learners’ progress is not tracked, and nobody records their precise level
If I asked any language teacher from around the world about the actual level of their learners, the usual answer would be, “Not sure. We’d need to take a placement test to find out.”
The reason is simple: All learners have different levels, and they can't be tracked because the teacher has so many other things to do. As a result, nobody knows how the kids are progressing in real time. Nobody knows how good the learners’ speaking, writing, or vocabulary skills are.
This leads to learners feeling that they don't see progress in their language skills. Even if they invest time into studying, they don’t see progress, minimizing their motivation.
Think about it: If you were to do something where you didn’t see progress, you would feel the same way. If you don't know that your work has a real effect, how can you stay motivated?
There’s a simple solution here: We need to turn to language-learning applications like Speakly. Speakly tracks each learners’ language skills in real time, including vocabulary and writing, speaking, and reading comprehension skills.
If half of in-school classes are done through Speakly, a teacher will have a detailed overview of each student’s progress, and everyone will know how their language skills are progressing. It's right there—it's visible.
Instead of that, language teachers in 2021 are giving tests, correcting them by hand, and returning them to students—very often assessing only a small part of their skills—and not receiving an overview of their students’ complete language skills, making teachers feel exhausted and overworked.
Why is this necessary? We already have solutions like Speakly that can do all this automatically. Just push a button and see how your students are progressing in every language skill. Simple as that.
Now that you understand the underlying issues of the school system, you might wonder what the solutions are here. How can we fix all that? ☝️
Well, we can very easily fix all this with the following steps.
Instead of the 100-year-old system of one teacher submerging the kids in knowledge, we must integrate apps like Speakly into the learning process right away. The app teaches learners everything they need, and the teacher becomes an inspirer—a motivator—who will encourage the learners to practice the language, to “learn” it.
Why? Language apps like Speakly have smart AI algorithms that account for all of the above-mentioned elements for each learner. For example, the Speakly algorithm observes your learning pace and engagement in real time, giving you exactly the study content that fits your current needs. No teacher can do that. So why not let such applications as Speakly help kids in the way they actually need it?
This can be done immediately by integrating Speakly into half of the language-learning classes and letting learners progress in a supportive environment that encourages them and supports their individual needs. During these classes, the teacher can act as a guide and a motivator, answering learners’ questions and allowing them to progress in their language skills via a computer or an app.
The other half of the classes can be designated for language practice—actually putting these Speakly-acquired skills to use—and focusing on a sense of achievement and feeling that the learner can actually practice the language.
The best solution for such an environment is to implement a single rule: A language class must have a strictly foreign language environment without turning to the mother tongue for help. Learners will receive all their grammar explanations and guidelines from the application. The practice element in the group is where we actually dive into the language without switching between languages. This is of paramount importance.
And that's it—a two-step system that presents the perfect balance between learners improving their skills with Speakly and then putting their knowledge into practice with immersive language-practice classes led by a teacher who has now become an inspirer, a motivator, a Teacher, instead of someone who submerges children in 100-year-old approaches.
This is the future of language learning. And it is here, today.