Teaching the right thing

By Dr. Katharine B. Nielson –

As anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language can attest, it’s not easy. I don’t know how many times I’ve had people tell me that they are “bad” at learning languages, citing the fact that they’d spent four years of high school or college learning Spanish or French, with nothing to show for it but a vague recollection of conjugating verbs.

And while those people aren’t exactly wrong–they didn’t, in fact, learn anything useful in all those years of language classes–it’s not because they are poor language learners. It’s because they were being taught about the language (e.g., the difference between the subjunctive and the indicative) rather than how to do anything with the language. Put another way, they were being taught the wrong things.

Thinking about all those wasted hours is painful. Four years, times forty weeks of school, times five hours a week of class is eight hundred hours, and that’s not counting the few hundred hours that were likely spent with flashcards and grammar books, puzzling over verb charts and memorizing stilted conversations. But those are a thousand hours in the life of a teenager, someone who can afford to and does waste time on all sorts of mind-boggling things.

What about working adults? There are over a billion people around the world trying to learn English right now, from global executives whose employers pay for private tutors to immigrants taking free evening classes offered in church basements and community centers. All of those adults have a real need to learn English. None of them has a thousand hours. And, because most language instruction is designed to cover the same topics in a linear order, nearly all of them are wasting their time learning the wrong things.

We know from dozens of years of research that adults learn languages best when what they are learning is relevant to their needs and when they can see right away that they can use what they’ve learned. Language programs are setting themselves up for failure when they rely on traditional textbooks and materials that try to teach everyone the same thing, and they ensure that no one is going to learn anything when they focus on teaching how the language works rather than how to actually use it, to you know, communicate with other people.

The first step in building an effective language learning program is conducting a needs analysis, so that we can teach learners the right thing. If the global executive wants to read an M&A document in English, then that’s what she should learn to do. If the recent immigrant needs to talk to his baby’s doctor, then that’s what he should be practicing. Both students will be motivated to learn and be able to apply their lessons to their lives in an immediate way.

Both learners would begin making some meaningful progress after a few hours, rather than realizing a thousand hours in that they can’t do any of the things that drove them to English instruction in the first place. But this is not how most language courses are designed. Successful, innovative language programs need to move away from the static content in traditional curricula and move towards needs-based, just-in-time instruction that quickly delivers outcomes. We know how to teach this way, we know that it works, and we know it’s more effective. Isn’t it time for us to do it?

Katie is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, which means she leads the teams ensuring that learners are getting the most efficient and effective educational experience possible.  She has a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and years of experience teaching languages, building language courses, and evaluating the effectiveness of language training as a research scientist.  She lectures and writes about all things related to language learning and educational technology.