Language Teaching Problems – Symptoms & Side-effects

For the other posts in this series:
Introduction & Credentials
Practicalities of Learning Languages
Language Teaching Problems I – Possible Causes
Language Teaching Problems II – Symptoms & Side-effects
Curing Language Trauma I – Setting the Stage
Curing Language Trauma II – Working on the Language
Benefits of Learning Languages

In the last post I pointed out various cultural factors and their consequences on the academic setting for the teaching of languages. In this one I will lay out the impact these factors have on the methods themselves and the consequences for the students. I believe it is important to understand the factors behind the systems and the effect they have in order to properly analyze and improve them.

The Broken System

The cultural and logistical factors listed in the last post have led to the educational systems in question implementing a twisted set of incentives and, by way of consequence, priorities. Some of the common features in these systems include:

A Near Exclusive Focus on Theory and Grammar

Very often these educational systems spend most of their time teaching grammar and rules, and demanding simple translations and ultra-specific essays in exchange. Most of the activity in the class is focused on measurable, gradable, above all tangible work, which means the evaluation is almost exclusively conducted on the basis of written work. As I mentioned in the second post in this series, practice is a critical and, in fact, mandatory part of improving one’s knowledge of any language. But in these systems, the only measurable amount of practice any student gets is based on the written language, with an exclusive focus on grammar learned by rote.

An Exigence of Absolute Perfection

And the evaluation and feedback given on the written work are based on an expectation of absolute perfection. Again, as we established in part two of this series, absolute perfection in ANY language is not technically possible. This may seem like a finicky point, but it is important. The teachers who are most demanding on this point are usually the locals who have learned the language and returned to teach it. Their mastery of grammar may be excellent, but is usually not “perfect” by any standard. They often miss or overlook certain exceptions or special cases that are outside the standard rules they live by. And often their accents are still very marked, which diverts the students’ progress in pronunciation away from the perfect accent they’re expected to have.

Brutal Feedback in Person

The final point that I will mention, and on which I will dwell longer, is that of in-person feedback. Because of the expectation of absolute perfection they impose on their students, the teachers have a tendency to be quite aggressive in their way of correcting mistakes in person. They feel like putting this kind of pressure will make the students progress faster. And sure, in some cases and in some contexts, this may work to a degree. But often this pressure is applied in a way that essentially convinces the students that anything short of perfection, any small mistake made in front of a native speaker will get them blown to pieces. This is obviously a terrible idea, already because of the fear this instills in the students to begin with. This fear alone is a big part of the problem with this approach.

But there’s worse still. If the only thing at play here were this fear, it might be more manageable. But this has two far more serious consequences. The first is an unfairly biased view of the students’ own level in the language. In most school subjects, a student can easily find other people outside school to get an idea of their own level and knowledge, which dilutes the teacher’s feedback. But for languages, most every student has ONLY their teacher available to gauge their level and tell them how good they are. And as these teachers focus on and look for nothing less than absolute perfection, virtually all of the students will fall far short of expectations. The result is students who hear, multiple times a week for years on end, that their level is well below what they inevitably come to believe is the only acceptable standard.

Also, this kind of feedback gives the students a radically false image of what immersion in the language would be like. Virtually all students of such systems that I have met have told me that they’d love to move to the USA or England, but that their English is simply not sufficient. Having observed the teaching methods and these students’ actual level, I realized this misinterpretation. And in fact I’ve noticed that 9 times out of 10, their level is already plenty sufficient despite what they believe.

The Trauma

The end result of these systems is, in most cases, a certain level of psychological discomfort that is completely neglected and worse still, is essentially considered yet another failure on the part of the student. Indeed, the whole system brainwashes the students into believing their level is woefully insufficient for any practical purpose, which blows their confidence to bits and keeps them at a sub-communication stage (see the three stages of learning languages in post two).

I’ve observed that this is downright traumatic for the students. Nor am I the only one to say it. Several times, as I was discussing this precise topic with others including actual victims of this kind of system, they used the word trauma before I did. So the term is clearly not as much of an exaggeration as it sounds. And one can tell a traumatized speaker apart from a non-traumatized speaker within mere minutes. Let’s examine both cases.

A non-traumatized speaker, when spoken to in the language, will usually answer more or less right off the bat. They may hesitate to find a word or expression, they may make lots of mistakes, they may have a very strong accent, but at least they won’t hesitate to answer. They’ll be able to focus on the practicality of communicating the answer. And if in the course of the conversation they make a mistake and someone corrects them, they will usually take it well, most often answering with gratitude.

A traumatized speaker reacts in very different and very recognizable ways. First off, when spoken to in the language, they will take quite a while to reply. And during that time, one can almost see the cogs turning in their head, making one sentence after another but ruling each one out for being inadequate in some way or other. Then, when they finally answer, it will be as short an answer as possible, because this leaves much less room for mistakes. When asked a yes or no question, they will invariably answer with a simple yes or no, for safety. And if in their reply they make a mistake and someone corrects them, they will – also invariably – apologize for making the mistake (which, in their eyes, seriously offends their listeners), desperately hoping to head off any repercussions. And of course, if they can avoid having to actually speak the language, they will definitely do so.

This fear and shyness can be seriously debilitating when interacting in the language with ANYONE else. These people end up literally terrified and paranoid at the mere idea of speaking the language. They’ll be fine with listening, and usually will understand fairly well, but cannot bring themselves to speak unless absolutely obliged to. This also leaves them incapable of seriously considering moving to any foreign-language country, merely on the basis of their perceived level.

The Reality

Yet I contend that, because of the high focus on grammar and vocabulary and due to the demanding expectations, these people actually can speak the language, and rather well at that. I have several times been confronted with someone who told me “I’d love to go to the US or Britain, but my English sucks”. And yet, every single time I coached one of them for their upcoming English exams, I noticed one key point: only 10% of what I was actively doing myself was correcting their English mistakes. Let me say that again: ONLY 10%. The other 90%, I realized, involved removing the fear and pressure they had been living with concerning the language. I will come back to this in the next post.

Because despite this trauma, the way the system is built means that the students actually DO learn the language, and quite well at that. When given time and with pressure removed, they are fully capable of expressing themselves correctly. They have the potential to practice and learn even more of the language, but the fear restricts their ability and motivation to do so. Not only that, they would be capable of correcting mistakes made by native speakers themselves, a fact that is met by stunned disbelief and denial every time I point it out after a mere 5-minute conversation.

And in fact, I’ve noticed another very consistent trend: once these people finally dare to take the considerable step of moving to a country where said language is spoken, they report losing their fear completely after mere weeks of total immersion. To me, this confirms the misguided character of the approach their teachers had. It confirms that providing such rough feedback to students gives a false impression of what immersion would be like. I can just picture these people’s first weeks. Finally in a position to be forced to speak, they cringe and brace themselves for the expected punishment every time they utter a word of the language, and relax, astonished, seconds later when they realize that no such punishment is coming.

Disclaimer again

I feel a need to clarify once again that all these observations are based on general trends that I’ve noticed ever since middle school. I perfectly understand and agree that not all systems are built like this, even among countries particularly affected by the factors listed in my previous post. I also understand that not all teachers, even in those systems, teach in this way, and that some in the other systems are fully capable of actually teaching in this way. And finally, I accept that not all students in such systems react in these ways, and can be more motivated and confident based on other external factors. But the trends I have noticed cover several hundred people I’ve spoken to in various countries. I personally noticed this trend in France first and foremost, but I’ve been told the systems in Spain, Italy, Russia and doubtless other countries have very similar characteristics and very similar consequences.

So we’ve now covered the failings of many systems when it comes to teaching foreign languages, and the cultural factors behind them. We’ve noticed the effects such systems have on their students’ motivation, confidence, fluency and abilities. We’re now ready to move onto how to prevent and solve the linguistic traumas that I described, in the next post.

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