Speaking My Language

After taking two years of French, three semesters in the States and one in Canada, I would have expected myself to be at least familiar with understanding the language.

Simply put, when people say that it’s harder for adults than kids to learn a new language, they weren’t “kidding.” (Kid? Kidding? I tried.)

Over two years of foreign language, I have experienced a variety of teaching styles and techniques to understand conjugations, grammar, and vocabulary. Some has stuck, but very often, it doesn’t. To utilize the benefits of learning another language, higher education should continue improving upon students’ learning styles and maturing minds.

The importance of learning a foreign language is quite apparent. As I mentioned in my first column of my semester abroad, research shows bilingualism not only helps individual face an increasingly globalized society, but it also improves memory and academic performance.

When abroad, I expected to come back to the States spouting off French. Being exposed to those who naturally dance on the line between speaking English or French has certainly been an interesting experience. However, my French class was not helpful. Even for reviewed information, I had difficulty being a passive student in a lecture hall watching the professor write sentences on the board. I couldn’t engage or pick up the words of audio recordings played. My one area of support, writing, was rarely needed or forced upon students in a timed test, inevitably leading to minuscule errors.

According to website FluentU, older students tend to view new languages through a filter of expectations and experiences. After speaking English for years, students inevitably search for those patterns they are used to seeing. For younger students, they learn from an unbiased perspective that allows them to pick up new languages easier.

Another setback, ironically, is older students more advanced cognitive function. An experiment conducted for LiveScience found that adult learners actually try too hard when learning language. Children use their procedural memory, the one humans use to pick up habits and skills, without the distraction of declarative memory system, the one for facts and vocabulary. Adult students have more complex systems that might distract them from picking up a second language as easily as their first. Much more research is needed to understand how adults learn language, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from pursuing knowledge.

No matter the age, memorization of grammar, vocabulary and conjugation has proven to be ineffective in long-term comprehension. The Washington Post reports a wide variety of research showing students not mastering languages by hard study and memorization. Rather, people acquire language when they understand what instructors tell them and what they read. This “comprehensible input” allows students to absorb and acquire the grammar and vocabulary of the second language.

My home campus’s modern foreign languages department, over my time fulfilling my graduation requirements, has been very forward-thinking when teaching students. Rather than a passive lecture with occasional individual work (requiring the professor to spend a solid half of the class time walking around the room to every student to make a single comment), USD professors have found progress in one-on-one discussions and work with other students. Also, classes are small enough that they often work together to write on the board and even relate back relevant topics using vocabulary words.

Some experts even go on to distinguish between language learning and true fluency. The British Council says the biggest mistake education makes with language is trying to teach languages in the same way we teach science, history and mathematics. Instead, students should acquire second languages in the same way children learn their first. To create an environment nurturing fluency, classroom should be comfortable places not forcing students to use a second language perfectly. Instructors should also respect the natural order of acquiring more subtle parts of language like nit-picky grammar rules. The content and intent of a student should be the priority.

As with any subject, everyone learns different. A cookie-cutter system isn’t effective for true understanding. According to The Guardian, linguists find greater success in teaching foreign languages through task-based learning. This technique focuses on providing realistic context to language beyond memorization that emphasizes language as a means of communication. While the grammar establishes the groundwork for fluency, interaction, between others and with communicative platforms, truly develops it.

With the evolution of English alone, teaching and learning any language should be an ever-evolving process reflecting the current setting. The complexities of a maturing mind might feel like an obstacle blocking the path, but it’s important to continue trying to take language away from strict textbooks and take it back to its roots: human communication. That communication looks more like blog posts and tweets, but nonetheless, it’s still language. And language is not passive. Language doesn’t come from sitting in a classroom staring at a list of conjugations and rules to follow. Instead, language comes from activity and living, breathing speakers.

I don’t necessarily plan on going to France and having in-depth conversations with locals, but no matter the language, I hope to pick up what I can and immerse myself in others’ cultures. Language is what sets humanity apart from other mammals. It’s truly a beautiful thing. And that fact wasn’t something illustrated on a whiteboard; it was made evident in how words move people forward, make them feel deep emotions, allow them to share their unique messages and make a lasting impact. Try conjugating that.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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