Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom

Get out of class and learn your language!
Get out of class and learn your language!

A friend of mine is an immigrant from Russia.  He speaks excellent English, though his pronunciation marks him as a native Russian speaker.  He is a PhD in the sciences, so he is clearly intelligent.  Recently, though, he confided in me that he received two 4’s in school (equivalent to American B’s): in Russian grammar and in English.  It struck me: how could someone who was good at school, bad at these subjects?  And if he supposedly wasn’t so great at these in school, how did he manage to succeed in English as he did now?

In the classroom, he did not do well in English, in spite of his aptitude in other school subjects.  Successful learning for him required Immigrating to the US and surrounding himself with English speakers.  He manifested a basic fact, that any human being can learn another language.  Generations of people without any formal education have become polyglots without much conscious effort; my friend became one more of their number.  Brains are ready to learn multiple languages.  Classroom language education does not work as effectively as the direct approach: learning the language on the street.

The contrast

This conversation reminded me of some of my own personal and second-hand knowledge of language education.  My only non-A’s in high school were German and Russian.  I know of many people whose last experience with a foreign language was a deflating experience in a school language class.  Benny the Irish Polyglot describe this experience vividly in his TED talk.   Everyone struggling to grasp another language in the classroom.

Then I remember my African and Indian friends and Indonesian acquaintances who take no credit for knowing 4-5 languages.  My Russian scientist  friend told me the same is the case in Dagestan, in southern Russia.  Africans and Indians often speak 1-2 linguae francaelike English and French in Africa, or English and Hindi in India.  Then they speak a majority local language, like Yoruba in Nigeria or a state language in India, like Punjabi.  Finally, Mom and/or Dad might come from the village, so that’s an additional 1-2 languages.  Three is easy to come by, and five happens without trying.  When I look on Youtube for the videos of the famous polyglots, I noticed that they are nearly all from the US and Europe.  I have not noticed one Indian and no Africans.  Is this under-representation because polyglots abound in these areas so much that they do not stand out in their culture?

The paradox

Note the main difference between these two groups of people.  The Russians and Americans spent much of their time learning languages in school; the Africans and Indians spent the minority of language-learning time in school.  The more formal education correlates to the worst outcomes.

In the US and Russia, the education system dumped and continues to dump millions of dollars into language education, when the solution is to live among the people and just talk.  Grammar largely doesn’t matter for these language-learners in Africa and Asia.  They took very few tests, and they may not have memorized vocabulary.  They may not have even been literate in that language.  They turned to someone and talked, and that someone talked back, and they worked it out.

One system can’t manage to teach a foreign language to a highly educated scientist; the other teaches multiple languages to people lacking formal education.  Yet the former educational system spends so much money on language-learning that doesn’t work so well.

We have what we need–and it’s free

In the US people always say that you have to live in the country if you really want to learn a language.  Just learning from a book isn’t enough, we admit.  Yet we always say this as we lament a monolingual doom.  We are not doomed to monolingualism, however.  What are the languages of our cities? of our states?  In Minneapolis-St Paul, we have a huge numbers of Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers, not to mention Chinese, Vietnamese, and Oromo speakers.

That’s it.  That’s all you need–for the cost of some time and a cup of coffee or a meal.

Ok, so you found someone who speaks the language–what do you do now?  You start with questions, with gestures, with mimicry, and then you continue building on what you learn.  Because your brain was set up to learn multiple languages, you can go in with the knowledge that you can totally learn this language without classroom instruction.  You will learn and make new friends.  If you must use high-tech tools, stick with Anki to create and track flash cards, or maybe organize notes with Evernote.

Effective education

From what I’ve seen, the most effective education in language comes from the street.  Since we’re set up to learn multiple languages, we just need to find the input.  What’s better is that input comes from delightful people all around us.  If classroom instruction would work effectively, it would need to incorporate language-learning truths that cultures have known for centuries.  Like my Russian friend, the best classroom for learning English was outside the classroom.  Languages are not a subject like some others, like science or literature; they come from interaction with others and not from a book.

How about you?  Do you learn languages best in or out of the classroom?  Did you ever have a fantastic language classroom experience?

Photo credit: Orange42 / / CC BY

24 thoughts on “Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom

  1. I don’t enjoy classroom-based language learning, but I do find it useful to a certain degree. If the sole focus is on acquiring a language is via books and classroom, the experience of eventually being faced with a group of native speakers and not understanding a single thing they are saying, is inevitable and, very usually, disheartening. I think it’s hard for an adult to learn to speak a new language WELL without any kind of formal instruction.


      1. Random strangers – I love that concept 🙂 In fact, we are doing it! I sometimes go to English conversation classes with friends, so that their classmates have somebody else to talk to.


      2. I think it’s great for you to drop in on your friends’ ESL classes. I’ve thought of teaching ESL by Skype, and a special bonus would be to have my kids on the Skype call with me. The student(s) could hear us talking, as well–conversation doesn’t get any realer than that! Any kind of strangers like that would help.


    1. You make a good point. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of just speaking to some in a new language and they’re worried they’ll mess up. In the case of language learning in elementary and high school, I think there’s one clear problem and that’s a lack of motivation. Kids just aren’t properly motivated to learn the language and that, in my opinion, is by far the most important part of all. As for class for adults in institutes and language schools, I think these can work to some degree because the students who attend have made their own decision to go, paid their own money and have a relatively strong motivation. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the classroom environment is MUCH, MUCH SLOWER than simply seeking out speaking opportunities and building an effective self-study regime.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree that there’s nothing like immersion, and my Vietnamese would probably be quite poor without it, but like ladyofthecakes said many people struggle without at least some instruction somewhere in the early days, whether it’s to start them off or fill in some holes they’ve missed by immersion. Your Russian friend already had this basis when he went to the US, so he could quickly improve from all those chances to practice whereas if he continued in classes he would have either hated it or hit a wall (or both!).

    When learning Vietnamese from scratch in country, the rate of my progress skyrocketed when I joined classes – and I was then able to practice what I’d learnt in class outside – but now that method’s plateaued and it’s time for something new. All part of the journey!


    1. Yes classes are helpful because of the safe, controlled environment. But too much safety is like living in a bubble. The balance is the key. But I’m amazed at what some folks can do without any classes.


  3. I have learned all my additional languages (Spanish, Italian, American sign language(ASL)) other than native English in the classroom. I learned the most when a teacher used a full immersion method– aka no language in the class other than the one you are learning. We used some of the techniques you talked about, gesturing, asking questions, repetition, or repetitive experience. Also in the full immersion classes we were introduced to culture; ex in Spanish class in high school we would listen to Mexican radio stations and watch Spanish tv with no subtitles. In ASL our teacher would tell us stories about her weekend, when we only knew partial vocab and had to infer the rest to pick up signs. In my experience teachers use full immersion in the first two years/semesters and after that you know a lot of vocab and stuff but they start connecting it with the grammar rules ex: you picked up when a word ends with amos, it usually mean people are talking about themselves and others (we form) now this is why and these are the other common endings.


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  5. Thanks a million for the re-blog, Melissa! You’ve got a great blog, too. We sound like we’re on the same wavelength. I’ve always said that the LDSers do languages right, investing in the most successful methods. I’m excited that you played a part in it.


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  14. I’m having lots of fun reading your blog. I have majors in several languages, an MA in Linguistics, and have taught English language learners in various universities for years. I love language! I so agree on the input/comprehension approach to learning, but it can be very frustrating, so I find it best to supplement with some textbook or classroom learning (for myself). I have to limit that, though, because I’m a control freak and the more I know of the grammar, the more worried I get about messing it up in speech!

    Liked by 1 person

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