An Educational Crisis? 5 Ways That Schools Fail To Teach Languages

Even the best educators can fall short of providing a great language learning environment to their students. Here are some of the biggest mistakes and a few ideas on how to fix them.
Language classroom

Languages educators have the best of intentions, but as many students can attest to, schools keep making the same mistakes in the classroom. How are educational institutions failing their students — and more importantly — how could they improve?

We’ve grouped the most common mistakes into the following five categories, and while these are primarily based on mistakes from English-speaking countries, these missteps can happen anywhere. Here are the biggest flaws in language education right now:

1. When Language Exams Are Too Difficult

The complaint of exams being too hard is one often heard in the classroom but rarely from the teacher’s mouth. And yet, the 152 academics who banded together against Ofqual in an open letter to The Guardian last month are arguing exactly this — going so far as to say the difficult tests are “killing” course adoption rates. (For those who aren’t British, Ofqual is the British regulator of tests and exams.)

The group, representing 36 universities, claimed the exams weren’t just too difficult, but also graded too severely. They also claimed these systematic issues were causing the huge dips in language course attendance of recent years. “Ofqual is killing off [language subjects] in schools and universities by ignoring the evidence. Exams that are in some cases more difficult than first-year university language exams… have been critical in driving demoralized learners,” they said.

While the idea of language learning being difficult is nothing new, there seems to be growing defeatism where young learners drop language courses as soon as they are no longer mandatory (more on that point below). 

Where’s the incentive to choose a language if you’re systematically made to feel rubbish at it?” The sentiment rings true for many students who struggle with language, and especially those who aren’t aware of other techniques to improve exam performance.

2. When Language Education Starts Too Late

First, let us say that no one is ever too old to learn a language. You can pick up a new language at any stage of life and still reap all those bilingual-brain benefits. (The only exception to this is adopting a perfect accent — we actually start developing our native accent in the womb.)

The real benefit of starting language education early is that children learn the importance of multilingualism. The subjects you learned in primary school — reading, writing, mathematics, natural sciences — form the basis for everything you learned later (and you probably use these skills daily). What if speaking a second language was considered just as important as being literate in English?

Additionally, classrooms provide an environment where their second language is openly used and practiced. Children are afforded, encouraged and even forced to learn languages, whereas adults must take it upon themselves to find time to do so. In this case, starting early has clear benefits.

3. When Students Don’t Learn Through Immersion

Immersion is where an individual surrounds themselves with their target language in order to force themselves to learn it (and learn quickly, in the case of the US military). Now before you get up in arms saying that not everyone has the time or money to spend six months in an Italian seaside town, it’s important to note that immersion learning isn’t just for frequent flyers.

Immersion can be done in any classroom, not to mention the comfort of your own home or even your work desk if you try hard enough. The most important thing about immersion is that you only speak in the language you’re learning. In fact, we have a list of 23 simple ways to kickstart immersion learning from your home. It can be as simple as switching your phone’s language to your target language.

It’s no secret in academia that immersion produces the best results, and yet it’s still not the standard method of teaching in English-speaking countries. Schools that do, such as Plympton International College in Adelaide, Australia, have classes where up to 80% of instruction is done in French. These schools have not only seen incredible results for their students but now boast waitlists of up to five years.

4. When Language Education Isn’t Mandatory

When learning a second language isn’t a mandatory part of the curriculum, it’s often jettisoned by schools that don’t see its importance in the modern world. Even if a school offers a wide array of language classes with great teachers that span multiple levels, pupils will often opt out of language classes in exchange for something else. This lower demand then leads to schools offering less robust programs. But why is this a problem?

The usefulness of a second language becomes more important as countries become increasingly multicultural and global — which all English-speaking countries are experiencing. Economists from the Cardiff Business School estimated that a lack of foreign language skills costs the British economy £48 billion annually. As the former Chancellor of Germany, Willy Brandt, famously said, “If I’m selling, I’m happy to speak to you in English. But if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

One Australian report found there has been a 181% increase in demand for bilingual skills across four million job advertisements in 2016. Furthermore, knowing a second language doesn’t just make you more appealing to employers; it actually increases your salary for said jobs.

5. When Teachers Publicly Shame Their Students

While the memory of Matilda’s Ms. Trunchbull forcing the child to eat a whole chocolate cake may be an exaggeration of what happens in the modern classroom, using humiliation, shame and public embarrassment as tools of control remain. This especially true for language education, where individuals of all ages can feel intense foreign language anxiety

Students of language learning are especially susceptible to public shaming due to the oral and public nature of practice and exams. And as the teachers protesting Ofqual pointed out, this doesn’t just impact the language learning at the time, but a student’s choice to pick it back up at a later date. 

So for the sake of language education everywhere, let this serve as a deterrent for bad behavior. Instead, let’s enable teachers to make classroom learning what it is at its best: a community of people learning a language together.