Kids Should Not Learn Languages in School

Olly Richards explains why teaching kids languages in school doesn’t work, and what we should be doing instead.

In short, we need smaller classes, more teachers amd teaching assistants, and remove tests. And we need families to send kids on exchange trips. He says most British kids don’t learn a language, so we should dump the current system.

With state school funding inadequate, and most parents struggling to make ends meet, I can’t see his pipe dream turning into reality.

Some people do learn a foreign language at school. I’d be interested to hear their thoughts.

However, his video did succeed in advertising his courses. :slightly_smiling_face:

PS: I did five years French at school, hated it, but learnt a bit of the grammar and vocabulary.

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Somehow I’ve expected you to link that video :smiley: I am going to share my thoughts, if I may.

First of the points I agree with:

  1. Kids don’t learn languages faster then adults.
  2. It’s a good approach to study language-unrelated content via a foreign language in order to improve that. It’s also risky, though, as you have to make sure everybody can follow the content of the class. This requires a very skilled teacher.
  3. Interest/motivation is important. While this is definetely true it is a very general statement that applies for every subject. However, you cannot enforce this. Many students will simply not feel motivated to learn a language they don’t need in their everyday life. And some animes or similar will not necessarely change that.

Now on what I would disagree on.

First of all, even though he somehow states that a lot of what he is saying is based on personal experience, he makes quiet some general statements based on a mainly English speaker centric perspective. At least this is the impression I get.

  1. He starts with stating that 80% of the US and 60% of the British citizens are monolingual. What about non-English speaking countries? What about countries where several languages are spoken? Where does that 20% gap between the US and the UK come from?
  2. The way how he describes language teaching is taking place is in complete contrast to my own experience, but fit to the way how you and other presumable native English speakers describe how languages are or were taught to them. I talked about this in other threads but just to point out some things he mentioned in that video:
  • grammar from the beginning on (just no)
  • 1-2 hours per week, 5 years in total (twice to three times the hours for twice the amount of time, plus a second foreign language for 4-6 years)
  1. He states, that most students are not able to communicate in the language taught after school. This is only partially right. First off, he is again judging based on the English students only, and secondly he is not asking whether there could be a reason that after all there are some students that can do so, and what those reasons are. From my very own experience these are the aspects that diffentiated the not so good students from the good ones at my school:
  • Native speaking skills: Students who were bad at foreign languages, may it be English or a different one, usually weren’t good at their native language either. They often had a very limited vocabulary, were using the same formulations all the time and made very basic grammar mistakes. The main reason was they generally were not very interested in anything beyond the interaction within their social group. You can’t improve your language skills if your only input comes from sources (this includes other people) that aren’t above your skill.
  • Practical usage: Those who were good usually had some use case to apply the language on. For me in English it was computer games who were often in English and music. I wanted to know what the musicians were singing (or grunting, in my case :slight_smile: ) so I had a motivation to learn.

I wouldn’t argue against the approach to language learning he talks about at the end of the video. But I disagree with his conclusion. I for one never was in a country were there is English spoken nor did I actively learn the language. I never learned vocabulary, grammar or read English books or used other means to actively practise my language skills. Music and games were really the only thing, and I started rather late with the latter. Nevertheless after leaving school I was able to understand any English text given to me, ranging from novels to scientific papers and used mainly English sources to teach myself all kinds of stuff, from programming over the way graphics engines and shaders work to what else not. And I was definetely not the best in my class.

From this I would draw two conclusions:

  1. It seems that there is a deficit not in the way languages are taught at schools in general but especially how it is done in the US and the UK. I’ve heard from several people who immigrated to Germany from the US and who send their children to school here that they consider the german way of teaching languages much better then the US one. That doesn’t mean that our way of doing this is optimal, it certainly isn’t, and there are surely many other countries that perform well in that regard. But it really seems to be a problem more evident in English speaking countries (we had a paper demonstrating this, too, that was linked in another discussion in this forum). At this point I would like to add that the overall motivation for a native English speaker to learn another language is probably lower then for a non English speaker to at least learn English. It is the lingua franca nowadays and therefore often a prerequisite for certain job or educational perspectives.
  2. There is a far spread misconcept that teaching at schools implies that it is only the school who is responsible for the process of teaching. But especially when the children get older and become teenager, it is also their responsibility. A lot of the students that perform well in English at school here in Germany do so because they consider it important to be able to learn the language and therefore they often actively try to improve their skills. One very far spread method is reading English books btw. This applies to all subjects though.
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It is not that kids shouldn’t learn languages but rather how they are taught. traditionally it is boring, repetitive and confusing. I spoke with someone who did advanced German. They went to Germany for two weeks. On return I asked how they got on with the language. Their answer? They understood very little and people spoke too fast.

I IMHO kids should be taught using play where they are taught how to ask for something in a shop. Then they act it out. Once they learn how to ask for one thing they can ask for anything just by changing a word or two. This builds confidence, and can be used straight away.

I’ve understand French primary schools have two teachers in their classes, one French and the other English. These teachers only respond in their language. By the time the children move on to secondary school their English is quite advanced making it easier to further their English learning.

I feel “out-of-the-box” thinking by big named Polyglots is required to change the way language learning is carried out in our schools, the same is true about how Mathematics is also taught in our schools, what is the Polyglot equivalent in Mathematics I wonder?

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Someone who is good in a lot of mathematical disciplines, which there is no name for, as such a person doesn’t exist. :slight_smile:

A Polyglot, however, is a person who is really proficient in teaching languages to themselves. That doesn’t necessarely make them good in teaching others. I am not sure whether the problem lies in polyglots knowing anything learning related that teachers don’t know, but whether this information isn’t given to the students. The latter rarely really question their approach to learning (in any subject) from my experience. They use whatever approach they started first with, intensify if they notice they don’t get good grades and if that doesn’t work they either blame the subject, the teacher or themselves. None of them blame the method. :slightly_frowning_face:

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I suspect teachers are in large part responsible for boring lessons. I found school dull until at age 16 I took classes with an inspiring maths teacher. Admittedly classes were small, maybe 15 people, and that helps a lot.

In defence of teachers, understanding native speakers is hard, very hard. I’m over 1,000 hours listening to French and I’m starting to understand real French people, but street and film French can still be impenetrable.

The French were not known for their English skills, quite the opposite, but maybe that has changed in the last decade or two. Germans and Dutch always seemed to do better.

Can school really bring a student to fluency? They might get them to the level of B2 perhaps.

At the end of the day the motivation and desire to learn has to come from inside the student. A good teacher can encourage and nurture that spark. A bad one can kill it dead, and my experience at school is that most teachers were as inspirational as watching mould grow on stale bread. Look up Catherine Birbalsingh, she inspires her teachers and students to achieve.

I fear the problem is the need to examine, to allow universities to select. which enforces rigidity and a traditional grammar based approach.

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I took Italian for six years through high school. Total hours of class time = ~810.

I have been using LingQ to learn Italian for six days shy of exactly two years. I have a 724 day streak. During this time my total listening time is ~1240 hours. LingQ estimates my total study time at ~2650 hours, and as far as I can tell it only starts estimating reading time spent over the last 1.5 years. Another 113 hours of speaking, plus all kinds of untracked time texting with friends, visiting Italy, reading random web sites, listening to my kids listening. Something like four hours a day, with iron discipline, for two years, feels about right (again, there’s no reason to make the quantification over-precise). That puts me at about ~3000 hours of work. I am at about C1, based on practice tests of passive material and the estimates of my tutors on Italki.

If I only did homework on school days over the six year period that I took Italian in school, I would’ve needed to do 2 hours of homework every single night to get the quantity of work done over six years of schooling that I got done in two years of self-study as a grown man who works for himself and also homeschools his own kids.

Again, don’t aim for over-precision. Just absorb the big picture. Obviously when you add in the inefficiencies in school methods the problem grows, but you don’t need to nitpick the details. Actually getting good at stuff - not dabbling and doing busy work - takes consistent effort and a lot of time.

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Some good points, @Obsttorte.

I consider these languages classes in school to be of low to medium efficiency, depending on the number of students in the class, the teacher, the motivation of the students, etc. Personally, I don’t think the method is horrendous. I’ve personally taken plenty of language classes for different languages with different institutions. In the end you eventually get there, but that’s the issue. With a low-efficiency method of 25-30 students in a class, many who don’t want to be there and distract the teacher, you really need a very long time, as @GMelillo mentioned. Three 50-minute classes per week during the school term simply isn’t enough. How much of that involves actual study? Very little after the class gets settled, everyone gets out their book and pen.

To couple this, these language classes have a very low efficiency at the complete beginner phrase, because the teacher can’t tell their instructions in the language. Once the student gets to an upper beginner level, the efficiency starts to improve. So with a very small time investment, the efficiency of the method remains low and many people can come out with primative competence with the language. I think even the goal of leaving such a system with an A2 or B1 level is a worthy goal, yet unfortunately many people still fail to reach that. It’s mainly time investment, in my opinion.

(Side note: once you build up like an A2 level or something, then you can benefit from watching subtitled movies in your spare time like in the Nordic countries. I think without their school system bringing them up to at least this level, they wouldn’t benefit from their TV culture of subbed films instead of dubbed.)

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What hindered you?

I am not sure whether I get your point @GMelillo . The reason you didn’t invest the same amount of work and dedication during your time as a student as you did as an adult has nothing to do with the school system. It’s a matter of willingness and motivation. The only things schools could do in that regards that come to my mind are to somehow illustrate the benefits of learning another language [1] or to put pressure on the students learning the language, for example by making it mandatory that they have to at least partially use those language in other subjects, too.

Of course the way languages are taught can be optimized. But from what you have written it isn’t obvious that if you would have spend the time in learning the language (2 hours/day as you wrote), you wouldn’t be able to have reached C1 until the end of your school time.

@nfera In regards to language learning efficiency, especially at the beginning, I am not sure whether self-studying is that much more efficient if you take everyone into consideration who ever attempted to do so. There are surely quiet some people who give up after a while because they don’t make the progress they wish for. One reason is surely that if you are trying to self-study a language for the very first time, you are indeed very inefficient. You have to learn how to do it properly. Not to mention those who would like to learn a new language but never try because they don’t even know where to start or don’t believe they can do it. A school class is very efficient in that regard as that it manages to at least get everyone on a basic level.

Isn’t that always the case? How does it benefit you if you just started learning the new language and immediately get that language thrown at you, not understanding a single word. If you start a new language in LingQ, do you fill the fields with descriptions in the target language or a translation to a language you understand? Do you use a monolingual dictionary right from the start? What is your point here?

[1] The benefit of learning a language is a difficult matter, imho. There are of course intellectual benefits like self-improvement, getting to know other cultures and strengthen the intercultural understanding, access to different sources of information (the difference in news reporting between german and non-german media is enourmous, for example). However, I am not sure to which extent you can communicate those to kids or teenagers so that they are willing to contribute a significant amount of time and effort learning foreign languages.

The main pulling factor is probably of economical nature which, as mentioned earlier, is probably also an explanation for the differences between English and non-English countries. However, this is also restricted as on one side this may cause some motivation for learning English, but not necessarely for other languages, and on the other side this restricts to careers where it is likely that you get into contact with foreigners or have to create output for an international audience, like for example scientists do. If you aim to work in the service or craft industry, where you >99% of the time interact with people from your country, the benefit of language learning is neglectable.

I am so glad I got to learn French in school in 1970s America, from 7th-12th grade. I only wish I could have started earlier so I would have had a shot at being accentless.

Without the technologies of today, and with an American-born teacher, we were limited in our exposure to at-speed, colloquial French. But we learned solid grammar and vocabulary, were immersed during each class period, learned some geography, history, and how to be polite. We memorized poetry and performed dictées. We learned to write stories and essays.

I was able to use this foundation during an exchange program to France at 17, and decades later taking my young daughter to see Paris. Was I able to understand rapid French and be perfectly fluent? No. But I got by, and was treated nicely and respectfully because I made a decent effort.

Once apps and new technologies became prevalent starting about 10 years ago, I vowed to finally become fluent in French. I have been working away at this, every day thanking that teacher from long ago for the foundation she provided.

Now I am trying to learn Spanish without that foundation. It’s much harder.

When seeking an elementary school for my daughter I made sure to find one that would expose her to a foreign language. She is now at 21 a decent Mandarin speaker.

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I learned Spanish in 1960s America: 10th. 11th, 12th grade. I was never fluent in it, but I had a pleasant 20-minute conversation with my Uber driver last month. My Latin (9th, 10th) isn’t nearly as good. I blame Uber.

Roughly 21% of Americans have a first (L1) language other than English, and continue to speak it with family.

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My entire point can be summarised in the following sentence: I think the main reason that many students leave English-language school systems without having at least a decent foundation of a foreign language taught through the system is because there are too few hours allocated to studying them. You personally mentioned this was a major difference compared to your experience at school in Germany.

You are saying your school system (government) literally invested four to six times the amount of resources (time, but we can also extrapolate this to also more money, as teachers cost such) into you learning English as a foreign language. This is massive! With such an investment increase, you would hope your system gets a better outcome than the Anglophone system. The general rule of thumb is you jump up CEFR grades by doubling the number of hours of study for each level.

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Thanks for clearing that up. :slight_smile:

Well, it sounds massive if you formulate it like that. But one could also argue that 1-2 hours a week basically equals to “why do you even bother with that to begin with”. I don’t think you can teach anything with such a low amount of hours.

It really seems to come down to the difference between how and especially to what extent languages are taught at school in different countries. Which strengthens me to belief that the main reason really is the feeling of necessity. Maybe even those who decide upon the curriculum don’t consider it important to learn a foreign language if the students already know the “most important” one (a.k.a. English). I mean, even here among people from all over the world studying all kinds of languages, many of those probably already capable of using more then one, we conversate in English all the time. As odd as it appears it seems to be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time to be born as a native English speaker, it appears. :thinking:

If the public servants in the Department of Education, politicians, think tanks, and education administrators don’t believe it to be as important, they won’t create a system which allocates much time to learning it. By allocating compulsory study time to a foreign language, you are removing time from other subjects. Priorities, for sure.

My experience was more 1.5-3 hours per week, but the system designers just don’t understand how different learning a language is to other skills and knowledge areas. There are definitely subjects I had in school, which had very little time allotment, but I’ve taken things away from them. For instance, blacksmithing or woodwork or painting or even some history subjects. The issue with learning a language is it’s really unlike these things and you really need hundreds of hours to reach a level of mediocrity. You can reach levels of mediocrity in other areas in much less time.

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