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
As you saw two posts ago (click here if you missed it), I have learned several languages in different ways. And as I’ve established in the previous post (click here if you missed it), I have been and still am able to put all these languages to use in practical ways in my everyday life, if only by communicating online with friends who share these languages. There have even been a few occasions on which, in the course of a single day, all six languages were useful to me. And now I strongly recommend those tips on how to learn and practice languages to anyone interested.
But as I learned these in different ways and different contexts, I noticed certain differences between the different methods used to teach languages, as well as their success or failure among the students. And more specifically, I’ve noticed that some of these systems are actually very counterproductive in their results. In this post I will consider some reasons this may be, and in the next I’ll detail what the issues are and the consequences they have on the students.
Now before I continue, I wish to insist on a very important point: In this post I will be covering general trends, not 100% absolute statistical realities. I perfectly understand that it’s not the entirety of the systems involved working with these flaws, and even in those that do, not all students feel the consequences. However, I have seen enough cases in so many different places to comfort me in my belief that I am statistically correct in my analysis.
I also understand that though I may have correctly identified the symptoms and the general cause, everything you’re about to read below is only speculative and born of an observation of some degree of correlation in those societies where I’ve seen such systems at play. You will see me use the examples of France and the Bay Area as references, as I know them best. However, having spoken to dozens of people, I am aware that other countries have systems variously modeled on one or the other. I perfectly understand that other causes might come into play in other places, though I do still suspect they all share at least a common basis.
I’m not choosing to make my impressions plain here, even with incomplete knowledge of educational systems in general, to accuse anyone anywhere of more or less deliberately messing things up. I’m doing it to get people everywhere thinking about how their systems go about teaching languages and how to improve their methods. I’m doing it because I have spoken with hundreds of people of dozens of nationalities about this, and it seems to resonate incredibly well with all of them, whether they’re victims of faulty systems or the lucky beneficiaries of systems that know better.
Education in general is a hugely important aspect of society, and is interwoven with it in such a way that each affects the other. Indeed, society conditions how people are educated, having previously conditioned how their teachers were educated, and of course education, by its very existence in this context, works to perpetuate the existing society, conditioning more people to then continue the cycle. What distinguishes one society from the next is its culture: its specific general behavioral trends, sometimes homogeneous, other times different from region to region. And certain cultural traits seem to predispose their societies to adopting behaviors that are more or less beneficial in the area of teaching in general, and teaching languages in particular.
A Pride of
The first one I can think of is pride. Pride is nothing new. In fact, it features prominently in Maslow’s theory of human needs, sitting comfortably at the fourth and fifth levels of the pyramid model. Pride can be defined as a significant amount of self-esteem, which is exactly what the pyramid’s fourth level says we pursue, but also comes into play when we engage in self-actualization, which is represented by the fifth level and apex of the pyramid. This pride can be individual, but it can also be related to the pride of the entire nation with regards to others, and a desire for some level of supremacy over them. I say this as an observation, with no judgment. After all, why judge people for behavior that is ultimately part of their survival instincts and pressures? I may or may not like it, but I refuse to criticize it or suggest that they change it.
The fact remains that some cultures, such as the French one, have what I’ll go so far as to call a surfeit of pride, which pushes them to react disproportionately to even objectively minor things. For example, some cultures make people predisposed to be deeply and seriously offended if a tourist refuses to even try to speak a word of the local language. This isn’t just individual personal pride, it goes to the extent that people feel, in a way, responsible for their kin’s failures, and even more deeply hurt and offended when those occur. It’s a real fragility of the ego that ends up, at those levels, being counterproductive. And I’ve found it often leads to a culture of perfectionism, where mistakes are denied, forbidden, even demeaned and criticized. This will be extremely important later.
Language-based national identity
Whenever a nation has built its identity mostly around its language, I’ve found this tends to lead to a few things: First, a kind of obsession with spelling and grammar in its own language, and a very high institutionalization of the language itself. But as a direct consequence, it also leads to a high level of judgment, elitism and perfectionism as regards the language: if you don’t pronounce, write, or express yourself in the language to the standard they expect, people will judge you and struggle to take you seriously. Language perfection then becomes a criterion for social status. Which, given what we saw in the last post, makes little sense.
Here again, France stands out as a great example. In the 1500s, Renaissance king Francis I was instrumental in consolidating royal control over France and helped really found the French nation as a single entity. One tool he used for this was the French language itself, which he declared to be the realm’s only official language in his Villers-Cotterêts declaration in 1539. During the Renaissance, the elites harkened back to Ancient Greece’s philosophical prestige and went out of their way to demean the Dark and Middle Ages. This meant modeling French spelling on Greek, which overcomplicated it. No other romance language or dialect has done this. This killed two birds with one stone: it increased the language’s perceived prestige and created a social filter to determine who was worth interacting with and who wasn’t, by making the language something one had to “earn”.
This too led to a culture of perfectionism more specifically applied to the language. In French primary school, you go through the same grammar book five times in a row over five years, learning and relearning the same grammar rules over and over again under a huge amount of pressure. But this spills over into other languages when a French person teaches them. Indeed, the French believe that all other languages work along the same lines and are as socially demanding as they perceive theirs to be, which affects their teaching style.
This is more speculative, but I believe it plays a role. There is, for example, a significant difference between Catholic cultures and Protestant ones (I’m not familiar enough with other religions to include them here) as far as general outlook on life is concerned. Protestants in their very teachings have a distinct tendency to be more pragmatic, modest and practically-minded than Catholics, which transpires in the countries’ respective economies, social attitudes and also languages. Success and profit aren’t as taboo and the overall focus is on results rather than on image. And the practical focus, as it applies to language, rejoins what I said in the last post about languages in general. This trend is pretty clearly visible in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the USA.
Diverse and Crossroads cultures
Some countries are more primed to be practical on the languages front, either because they themselves have multiple languages within them or because they interact much more than most with their foreign-speaking neighbors. The biggest examples here are Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. In Switzerland and Luxembourg, two non-English-speaking countries, English has nonetheless become a very common language, simply to use as a common language between the different communities. This need to deal with multiple languages on a daily basis has impressed upon the people how important and practical languages are, and therefore influenced their teaching methods as well.
The Academic Context
Of course, mere cultural aspects aren’t everything. In each country, schools and the government define a school syllabus, to be applied to all students. This is usually shaped and defined by the aforementioned cultural tendencies, but can be designed independently of that.
Either way, the rules are set at one level and implemented all the way through. This leads to certain “success” criteria for the teachers themselves, which depend on the students’ success. So this incentivizes teachers into putting pressure on the students to succeed according to the performance criteria written into the system.
That’s why I don’t actually blame the teachers for this trend. After all, they’re merely responding to certain incentives in the easiest way they can. That, like pride, is an evolutionary behavior: putting in what seems like the least effort (pressuring the students in an attempt to speed up their progress) to get what they expect will be the biggest payoff (achieving their own individual goals).
And once again, I’m absolutely not saying that ALL teachers in such systems act in this way, or that ALL students react poorly. And in fact, the results on paper must be sufficient if the teachers keep doing it. But “on paper” isn’t the only thing that matters when speaking a language, as we saw in the last post.
So to summarize, several cultural factors influence the production of school curricula. These curricula set objectives for the teachers, but also put pressure on them to achieve these objectives and therefore incentivize certain less productive ways of teaching. In the next post I will expose what I’ve found is a very common teaching method in certain countries more affected by the aforementioned cultural factors, and their rather counterproductive consequences for the students.