Why You Couldn’t Learn a Language in School

If you spent many years studying languages in school, only to leave, look back, and realise that you don’t remember anything, you are not alone. I strongly believe that this has very little to do with your skill and natural talent, and rather the methods used to teach in schools.

If I told you that I studied Spanish for 12 years in school, yet am still unable to form a basic sentence, I would understand if you thought I had a lack of talent or ability. However I have been learning Mandarin for nearly 2 years and am able to read difficult books and watch TV shows understanding the majority of it. To me, it’s clearly not that my ability has suddenly improved, but the methods I used.

Here are some of the many reasons why you couldn’t learn a language in school, explained.

Interest

Interest and motivation is at the core of language learning, and without it, learning is so much harder. Without a fundamental interest, you’re ability to acquire new vocabulary will never be as high. Many people study languages in school that they simply do not want to learn, and it is impossible to expect success in a language you don’t actually need or want.

This isn’t to say that schools should teach a larger variety of languages, rather, time in school needs to be spent on improving interest, and sharing things that will make people want to learn.

In school I was only ever shown boring beginner level content scaled down for foreign learners. This did nothing to inspire my interest. Going to IT rooms and being told to find something interesting in the Spanish language and try and read/watch it could have done so much to make me want to learn a language.

I never continued with Spanish after finishing my GCSE’s because I simply had no interest in it. The day after my last exam I stopped studying due to a lack of interest. I think making people want to continue their studies after graduating should be a great goal to aim for.

Expectation Management

I was taught Spanish from the age of 5, and never got the feeling that fluency might be possible. Spanish fluency always seemed very far off in the distance. Actually I know that’s not true. For a language as hard as Chinese, you can still understand nearly everything in fluent content in just a few years.

If all my teachers had spent class time describing how they learned the language for themselves, it may have been inspiring to me, and made me actually try. If from the age of 11 when I started secondary school I did 1 hour of immersion a day, by the age of 16, 5 years later, I would have been able to understand most things natives said.

Unfortunately, they didn’t tell me that fluency was possible, or how to learn in this way. The reason seemed to be that it would be annoying if students read ahead as it would negatively impact the way they taught classes. This goes directly in the face of how to learn a language properly.

There was only one teacher who seriously tried to encourage me to learn a language, saying that I could get seriously good if I wanted to. It is simply a coincidence that this teacher was a mandarin teacher who taught me a few years before I actually started learning mandarin. At the time it didn’t work, and it was not what came to motivate me later to learn mandarin. However, at that time I seriously spent a few days considering and thinking about whether or not to take this further. Although I didn’t, with great encouragement, and expectation management, maybe more students could study further.

So how should you actually learn a language?

To summarise it in one word, immersion. The more time you spend with the language, reading and listening to it, the better you will be. The brain is very good at pattern recognition, and when it understands messages in the target language, it learns.

An example of one of the first times I did this is when I was watching Peppa Pig in mandarin with mandarin subtitles. They were running to the garden and a character said (in mandarin) “this is a big pumpkin” – at this time, I understood everything except for the word pumpkin. However, due to the fact that they were in a garden, holding a pumpkin, it was a very easy word to learn straight away.

This is how you learn a language as a baby, and when done repeatedly you can learn very quickly. Just by finding a book that I was interested in, I learned 10,000 words in 4 months (You can check here for proof – all by reading)

This is the kind of thing that following your interests can lead to, and the kind of thing that can inspire improvements in the language rapidly.

I did very little immersion in school, which meant that I didn’t learn as much as I could have done.

Obviously the order at which you earn things through immersion is unpredictable, and that is why it’s difficult to teach it in school.

It is very hard to believe that simply immersing yourself in content will help you learn however it does. If you don’t believe me, I recommend watching this video here. And if you actually want to use these methods for yourself, then you can find a really great guide here.

Grammar and Tests

If you study a language with the aim of passing a test, you will only learn how to pass the test, and you won’t learn the language itself. Does this sound familiar to you: you understand very little in the test, however by picking up on key vocabulary you memorised from the test’s vocab list, you are still able to get the question right.

Even if you can’t relate, test content is very different to what people say naturally.

Grammar is the easiest thing for schools to test, however most of it isn’t as important to learn as it can be incredibly complicated. Grammar makes up a tiny portion of the language, learning words in general is much more important, as if you understand all of the other words, 99/100 times you will still be able to understand what it means, allowing you to acquire the grammar naturally.

Grammar is best learned when you find it in natural text and you’re unsure of the meaning. This means you already have an interest in it and are more likely to give it value and learn it the first time.

Cheating

Cheating in language tests was laughably easy in my school. Many people wrote advanced passages beforehand and brought them in on a piece of paper, copying them word for word. Our teachers participated with this in certain aspects.

Instead of speaking or writing for ourselves, we were made to learn highly scripted and corrected texts that we could use during the test. We weren’t prepared to spontaneously write or talk. This was basically identical to those cheating and bringing in pieces of paper, however we had memorised it instead.

My teachers could always attribute poor performance in tests to forgetting memorised paragraphs rather than individual words or grammar structures.

This just seems like a counter-productive attitude to me.

Classroom Sizes

An individual one-one class is much better for learning than a group class. In a group class, your pace is often limited and you all have to move at the same time together. There is little room to go out and study ahead and follow your interests.

It’s also quite easy to just ‘get by’ without being called upon and tested.

Talent

Talent isn’t a real thing in language learning. There is just interest and good methods. There are many bad methods which are still circulating today, especially in schools, and it leaves people with the impression that talent exists.

This can lead people to not trying new languages and it can kill motivation. With a good method, anyone can learn a language.

Those who are fluent in school

My brother is someone who, despite everything I said, did become fluent in school. There are several differences however that are important to keep in mind. He studied in high school as well as university, and he spent just over a year in Mexico and Spain, meaning he studied for 16 years instead of 12 like me. Another thing to keep in mind, is that at the 12 year mark, we had similar Spanish ability.

If you had 16 years of being taught the language in school, you would have thought that the lessons would have contributed significantly to your learning. However he still claims that it was his own independent study that made him as good as he is now.

If for primary school you had one lesson a week, and then 3 lessons a week in secondary school, 4 a week in high school and 5 a week in university, assuming a total of 40 weeks of lessons per year and that each lesson is 1 hour long, that is a total of 1,760 hours of professional learning, and it is only considered to be a very minor part of the learning process.

If I were to try and reach this amount of hours spent learning in just two years, I would need to study for nearly 5 hours every day. I know that I definitely haven’t studied this much for mandarin, however in less time I have been able to comprehend most TV show content and book content. This shows that to succeed in school, much more hard work needs to be done outside of it.

It also shows that the lessons are just inefficient, undoubtedly I have spent more time studying Spanish, however my Mandarin is infinitely better.

1,760 hours is a lot of time, and you can make incredibly significant gains in learning a language during this time, however it needs to be in the right area. Someone could become highly proficient in the language during this time, however continued effort would be needed. There is another factor to keep in mind, and that is…

The point of no return

There is a point in language learning where it is essentially impossible to stop, lose motivation and give up. It is at the point where you understand so much that doing things such as reading, watching TV shows and talking to people in your target language is just entertaining because you enjoy doing the activities. How could you stop learning a language, when you enjoy their TV show’s so much because you understand so much of it and can follow along just like a native? How could you stop learning a language when you have a huge book in the language that you enjoy reading?

If you have reached this point, you have made it, and learning will never feel like learning. There may still be many things that you don’t understand, but because the rest of the material is engaging, this is quite easy to overlook.

This doesn’t have to be high level. If you can find anything like this at a graded level more suitable to you e.g. a kids TV show, then you have reached this point as well, and once you have consumed this content it will be much easier to find more content that is similar to the previous.

I don’t think schools ever approach this point, when really it should be a main goal to strive for.

Conclusion

If you have felt like you lack talent for language learning, however really want to learn a language. I encourage you to try again with the attitude of immersion. I’d like to restate the immersion video and guide here to get started.

School isn’t a great place to learn languages for the above reasons, and it’s not something to be ashamed about. Please let me know if you have any questions about this and if this has made you feel less bad about forgetting the languages you learned in school and if it made you motivated to start learning again!

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