Reflections on Language Courses

“Language courses are crap”.

Or so one Spanish TA confided to me during my college years.

After about two years of not having any language courses, although having many others self-taught via immersion and conversation, between this week and next week I was thrown back into that world.

There was a time in which I thought that a language course was the only true gateway to learning another tongue.

How silly I was back then.

I’ve noticed something very different about U.S. Language Material shelves and those in various European countries.

The U.S. ones are often stocked with big books and expensive programs, and the variety of languages is regrettably small. However, between brands such as Assimil and Kauderwelsch, the rest of the world does seem to focus a lot on reducing the introduction to a language in a small book.

Guess which one I’ve found more useful?

Moving on…

I’ve had a few days of Hebrew classes since my full-grown polyglot chrysalis hatched earlier this year (I place March-May 2014 as the rough time frame of the hatching).

The one thing that I found the most telling is the fact that, in the Intermediate class (that I was asked to leave because it was too easy for me), the teacher used English more than I was comfortable with, rather than the target language, and spoke particularly slowly.

At literally no point in any of my language learning processes, except for at the very beginning, did I subject myself to material for learners that was deliberately slow (okay, except for Duolingo’s turtle feature).

This sometimes became a bit of a challenge, especially with highly inflected languages (Finnish was my first of the lot), because I remember that trying to process all of the cases took too much mental energy for me during my early stages. But, with persistence and the “just one more episode” mentality, I grew into them.

Another thing; many students just don’t try putting on a separate accent. To be honest, I sometimes find myself guilty of this in Hebrew. Efraim Kishon famously called Israel a land where everybody has an accent and, therefore, nobody has one (very true indeed, but probably truer in his day).

For most of my languages, however, I feel that speaking with too strong an American accent really isn’t an option (hence, I keep a collection of how many nationalities I’ve been mistaken for…but that’s for another time!) I think that, for the benefit of language learners everywhere, I should write a piece about accent reduction.

But for the American crowd: you guys are not alone. One thing I’ve noticed about most language learners (from literally everywhere!) is that they tend to not put on any accent at all.

For whatever its worth, even people from the nations that have a reputation for being “good with languages” (a term that is misleading on all accounts and serves no purpose aside from to comfort lazy efforts) tend to have virtually no different accent when speaking other tongues (English spoken in a Dutch accent is a case in point).

Perhaps as a native English speaker, it becomes a necessity because my goal is to reveal myself as “good enough” so as to keep the conversation in the language that I want.

Now, as to the advanced class: it truly is going to teach me how to deal with texts. But what it doesn’t let me do is “speed up the process”. There is a syllabus spread over the course of several months, and that syllabus doesn’t allow me to go at my own pace.

The fact that I know several other languages well enables me to become more confident when I speak the target language among my classmates. And this confidence really shows (interestingly I felt too self-conscious in my European travels to put this air on most of the time…but maybe when I’m out of the country the next time!)

It is also telling that, in a course, I don’t use the materials that I find the most “fun” to learn my languages (as I did on the immersion roads to fluency). I do what the teacher wants.

On the one hand, this helps my self-discipline. On the other hand, this will complicate my relationship with the target language, because the one thing that will kill all “chemistry” I have with a foreign tongue is the idea that it is being force-fed to me.

Now, as to whether I agree with the idea that language classes are “crap”:

I also have a bit of a suspicion that there might be some in the class that just see the course itself as the road to becoming “good” with the target language.

If I were a language teacher, I would preface my first class with this: it is my goal to guide you through the target language, but if you are to become good, you must do MOST of the work on your own. And that means truly making it a part of your life.

Americans aren’t the only ones who take a language for “x years” and forget it all. This happens everywhere I’ve seen.

I don’t have any talent for what I do.

If I want to learn something, I make it a part of my life. I make it a part of my routine. And the class is certainly part of my routine, but as an obligation upon which a grade of mine is dependent, there is no way that any language course will make me like a certain language more. If anything, it would make me care about it less.

That isn’t to say that I don’t care about the languages with which I have taken classes in (Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, and given how many languages I’ve learned without even setting foot in a classroom, this list will probably remain that way forever).

But between an act of love and an act of obedience, there is one task that will always win for me in my heart.

And you can probably guess which one.

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