No Downside, Part 2: Self-Evident Things

Let’s examine some things that are self-evident about language-learning in a non-immersion classroom setting:

  1. Most people who study a language neither master nor retain it to a useful degree.
  2. Fluent L2 speakers always credit their time immersed overseas (non-linear learning), not their classroom experience (linear learning), for their speaking ability.
  3. All L1 speakers become fluent in L1 by non-linear means, and are fluent before beginning any linear classroom learning experience.
  4. Despite years of linear L1 language training, students (with the exception of a few who seem hard-wired to seek an identity beyond their provincial upbringing) retain the regional vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that they’re surrounded by, with no regard for what they learned in the classroom.
  5. L1 speakers rarely consciously process grammar rules, instead speaking like those who surround them (or those they aspire to be surrounded by). Conscious processing of grammar rules occurs in L1 only when the speaker is trying to break away from what “sounds right” and move beyond regional dialect. Fluent L2 speakers are able to speak on auto-pilot while occasionally consciously processing grammar rules that differ greatly from their L1, but generally don’t consciously process grammar rules either.
  6. Upper-level L2 classrooms expect and count upon the weak students to have quit or to have failed in order that those capable of high achievement can be taught at a challenging level.
  7. All but the best and brightest in upper-level classrooms commonly make first-year and second-year mistakes on fourth-year essays and speech.
  8. Some students who are intelligent, hard-working, and fluent in L1, seem incapable of retaining a useful amount of what they are expected to learn in a lower-level class.

There are those who will attempt to get around these uncomfortable truths by pinning the blame on students by claiming that students who cannot advance beyond level one or two don’t “work hard enough”.


While this is undoubtedly true for most failing students, for some, we are forced to play the “lazy” card to avoid the conviction that what is failing is the non-immersion classroom system that “worked” (in the sense that it prepared us well enough to get overseas and really learn the language) for those of us who went on to become language teachers. A successful system of language instruction would not rely on mass failure and drop-outs and then trumpet the achievement of the survivors as evidence for its validity.

Listen, before you dismiss me as a cranky old frustrated teacher, or a hippie, anything-goes, touchy-feely softie, let me give you a little background about my path to language-learning and early career.

  1. The non-immersion classroom system worked for me. I didn’t take a language my freshman year in high school. The French teacher cornered me at one point and told me that I needed to take French the next year, so I did. Without doing any homework, I scored fifth in the state on the National French Exam. I ended up taking French III and IV in my senior year, and unlike the parents who come in on parent/teacher night telling us how they took three years of Spanish in high school and can’t remember a thing, I can pretty much remember all the French I learned. My teacher was good, no question—but my sister had her too, and worked harder than I did—and she doesn’t remember much. I’m just wired to learn languages. (Not bragging—I didn’t wire myself!)
  2. When it turned out that there were no jobs teaching history, I went back to school and got a minor in Spanish in one year, taking courses and their pre-requisites simultaneously, and out-performing students who had taken it all through high school and college up to that point. Again, classroom instruction and worksheets worked great for me. (And again, I’m not bragging. My grandmother remembered her French well into the late stages of Alzheimer’s.)
  3. I gave traditional classroom teaching a try. The most natural thing to do when beginning a teaching career is to teach the way that worked for you. I began my career with faith in explaining and error-correction.
  4. When my students did not succeed, my first instinct was to become a better explainer and error corrector. I did. It didn’t help much.
  5. I was every bit as much of a red-pen, no half-points, grammar and spelling stickler as you may be. I tried to increase student achievement through good teaching, high standards, and hard work, but it didn’t work.
  6. I still want my students to speak and write correctly. I’m not one of those “grammar doesn’t matter” people.

But it boils down to the fact that I can’t be satisfied telling my students “memorize this vocabulary, memorize this grammar, and put them together to make sentences without making any mistakes” knowing that it’s not going to work for the vast majority of students—even though it worked well for me. I can’t be satisfied with teaching my students to trick me into believing (wink-wink) that they’ve learned a given grammar point on a test, when I know that they’ll screw it up every chance they get between now and the time they cram for that same topic for the final exam. And that it will take significant review next year for them to trick that teacher into believing (wink-wink) that they’ve learned it all over again. That’s not learning, even by the most charitable of definitions.

Okay, all of that could be construed as a bit confrontational, but I’m not arguing against anything I haven’t done myself. All of this is information that I have been confronted with, and found my approach inadequate. I changed my approach to teaching because this set of self-evident facts overwhelmed the views that I had previously held regarding the teaching of a language. I lost the argument, and had to change.

Now, this will be a long series, so give me time to get my full point across. However you feel about what I’m saying, please do one thing right now. Or later, when you cool down. Go back and read the eight self-evident statements at the top, and ask yourself (given the fact that you have probably said all of those things to yourself), where does our faith in explaining, worksheets, error-correction—all of the hallmarks of the traditional rigorous classroom—where does our faith in these linear things come from?

Does it come from the self-evident success of these traditional elements? Or does it come from the belief that there is no serious alternative that can realistically be used in the classroom?

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