learning another language: cursed words

It’s a very safe bet that everyone reading this has either directly had the following experience or knows someone who has—spouse, child, friend,oui-non relative or colleague:

You’ve taken three or four years of high-school French or Spanish, then another three or four more years in college (where the offerings are significantly broader, extending from Mandarin to Russian to Hindi and all points between)… and six months later you remember a few dozen words and cannot speak or read the language, as far from fluency as Paris is from Beijing. You’re intelligent and motivated, and did all of the requested homework, yet the results speak for themselves. I simply have no gift for languages, you think, and move on to other areas of study and projects that yield tangible results.

Given that being bilingual makes employees that much more valuable across our ever-smaller planet, that being bilingual engenders empathy and communication that transcend borders, that being bilingual stimulates the brain in myriad ways and can actually help to stave off or delay diseases like Alzheimer’s, why in the world are languages taught in a way that discourages progress, interest and results?

In one of countless articles and studies confirming the benefits of learning and speaking a foreign language, this excerpt from The Atlantic lyrically sums it up:

Multilingualism has a whole slew of incredible side effects: Multilinguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences, likely from learning grammatical rules and vocabulary; they are more perceptive to their surroundings and therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information (it’s no surprise Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots). And there’s certainly something to be said for the cultural pleasure of reading The Odyssey in ancient Greek or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in French.

Yet the typical experience has students going to class two or three times a week, with perhaps an hour or two of homework. Such a schedule can no more reach fluency than a monkey can read The New York Times. And why is it that words like “rhinoceros” even come up, when words like “shelf” are left to languish in artificially closed closets of the practical?

Most motivated people can achieve fluency in their chosen language within 24 months.

What? What a ridiculous claim, no? Millions of people can testify to the opposite, and more likely than not would respond by uttering or muttering a few foreign-language curse words among their limited word repertoires. Yet how many of those selfsame people devote 30 daily minutes to focused study? How many choose a language for which they feel an intense attraction—be that derived from the country’s literature, culture, architecture, food, history, music et al.? How many watch DVDs of their all-time favorite movies with the chosen foreign-language subtitles displayed? How many gather together in small groups to talk, study, laugh and support one another in the language du jour?

Parents, take note and push for more practical and enjoyable study for your kids. High school and college teachers, take note and do likewise for your students. The cursed words of frustration and futility can then be relegated to the dictionary where they belong, rather than to the classroom where they inevitably extinguish hope and joy.