Headed for a Catch-22 situation?

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Robert Frost in The Road not Taken / Photo by Mark Smallwood

It’s a commonly held belief (at least where I live) that in order to fully be able to speak a foreign language, one has to live abroad. It is only through immersion that you’ll finally be able to understand the subtleties of the language you want to learn. This is also widely spread on TV by some ‘experts’ and, needless to say, many people buy into this idea without giving it any kind of serious thought or consideration. As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I’d be unemployed if this were true. Actually, I would never have been able to become an English teacher, or even to speak the language as I’ve never lived nor studied abroad. But this is as personal as I’m going to get on this post. What’s been making me think for a while is exactly the difference between learning a language in an immersion situation, or learning it in the formal environment of the classroom.

One can easily see why it’s so easy to be led into the argument in favour of living abroad as the only possible solution for really learning how to speak a language. “Learn a second language as naturally as you’ve learned your first language,” says one advert. “I’ve studied English in [insert a non-English speaking country here] for more than 6 years, but it was only when I went to [insert an English speaking country here] that I realised I had not learned how to speak the language,” reads a testimonial next to the picture of a girl in her ‘I love London’ T-shirt who has just returned from a month of studies in, well, London. Add to that the fact that we all know a friend of a friend who’s been through this very same situation, and also the fact that, when it comes to education, everyone is an expert, and voi-lá – you’ve got yourself the perfect scenario. How can you persuade someone that, yes, even though it does help, it’s not a sine qua non condition for language learning?

The problem is aggravated when a neuroscientist is invited for an interview on TV about the best age and method for you to learn a foreign language. Why would they invite a linguist, after all, huh? As if that were not enough, people are constantly bombarded by adverts from an ever-growing number of language schools in the country that claim that learning English is easy. Easy? Seriously? I’m fine with learning English is enjoyable, pleasant, fun, but not easy, sorry. Learning, not only languages, requires dedication, motivation, work, and effort. “Ok, but what’s your angle, Henrick?” one might wonder. My angle is this:

Whenever we have to learn something new, we need to be motivated to do so. We’re going to, even if it’s subconsciously, analyse the amount of work and effort involved and the pleasure we’ll derive from mastering A or B and then decide whether it’s worth or not going through the trouble of learning it. We’ll also use others, usually our friends, as the yardstick against which our success or failure will be measured. We don’t want to lose face in front of others either, so it’s much easier to go with the flow and fail as long as everyone else is failing too than go against the mainstream and fail when all around you succeed. For example, if you need to lose weight and you decide to start on a weight-loss programme that will take a while to complete, but all your friends tell you of that miraculous new crash diet that will help you shed 20 pounds a month that they’re all going through, you end up giving in. Even when we know deep down that there’s no such a thing, it seems we’re somehow afraid that this might be the very first time it’s going to work. The same is true of business opportunities – we know success depends on hard work, but every now and then it’s easy to be lured by that new business opportunities that just seems too good to be true. Guess what? It is.

Learning languages is no different than that. Depending on how proficient a speaker of the language you want/have to be, you will have to invest a certain amount of time, effort, and hard work to reach your objectives. But it’s easy to be misled by an advert that portrays a TV star telling you how easy it is, and we end up falling into a vicious circle. Let me see if I can get this into writing…

People are constantly on the lookout for the soft path – generally speaking. Therefore, if I find a place that will ‘teach’ me English without requiring too much work from me, that’d be perfect. If, on the other hand, there’s a lot of homework, teachers nagging you in class all the time, serious assessment criteria and possibility of failing, people are likely to be more serious when choosing this kind of course. But then, and here’s where it hits the fan, when people are bombarded with adverts that state that you can only possibly learn a language effectively by living abroad, your expectations towards any kind of serious course are lowered – why would you go through all the trouble serious courses and teachers would put you through when you won’t be able to reach native-like fluency?

In Brazil, language courses fall under the category of any kind of course and are not regulated at all. Hence, it’s common for you to see people who have got no knowledge of the language whatsoever start a language course. It’s just business like a bakery, only instead of selling bread, it sells education. Obviously, these money-oriented people are way more concerned with making money than actually teaching anything, and if this kind of mentality becomes the norm rather than the exception, we have a problem. These people start selling what people want: a course which will teach them a foreign language fast and with very little effort from them. Suddenly, a whole bunch of people just flock their way. Other schools, who are also in need of students so they can pay their bills, see what’s happening and decide to follow suit. From this point on, schools do whatever it is possible to make sure students get what they think they want (not studying hard and still learn) at the expense of what they really expect to get at the end of the course (becoming at least independent users of the language).

The entry level in most schools has dropped straight to A1 even when you’re dealing with students who are well capable of being challenged a tad beyond that. When students start their course, they love it and say it’s all easy and they can learn the language without having to bend over backwards to find the time to study and do all the exercises. It’s all too beautiful until time passes and then, two years after studying, they experience very little progress. That’s when they finally admit that the only way for you to learn a language is by studying or living abroad. Aren’t many language schools headed for a Catch-22 situation in the near future? We need to make sure students realise they can learn a foreign language by taking a course and committing to their studies, but this requires them to push their students harder than most other schools do, which means many students will choose to study in an “easier” course. Consequently, in order to have students studying and paying for their bills, especially after the school has grown to a certain size in which it needs to have a minimum number of students just to exist, they end up having to lowering their standards. When they lower the standards, the arguments in favour of taking a course abroad become much more apparent, and these language schools, in the near future, may end up losing their students.

In other words: are certain language schools laying the ground for their own failure by lowering their standards so that they can compete with schools who are not seriously committed to education? What’s worse, isn’t this going to make it even harder for people to believe they can learn a language by taking a course, as I and so many other friends of mine have done? Are teachers, by lowering their standards, starting to make themselves redundant?

* This post is based on a talk I had with a friend who is currently taking an English course and, after two years of studies, has realised not much learning has taken place. This person also works in the field of education, which made our talk even more profitable.

** It all made perfect sense in my mind. In case there are things which were not clear, just ask! 🙂

7 thoughts on “Headed for a Catch-22 situation?

  1. Dear Henrik,
    This was a fascinating post, and one that is quite relevant where I work too (Brno, Czech Republic). I estimate that there are about 15-20 langauge schools in Brno, many of which advertise English as an easy language and promote courses similar to the ones you describe in your blog. I always tell my students that they need to work hard if they want to learn a language (or anything for that matter), and comparing it to learning a musical instrument. They know that it is impossible to play an instrument really well without hours of practice, but that at the same time you can learn a few tunes very quickly. Once they start to see this, a few of the students put in a bit more effort, but it does depend on what their peers are doing.
    How to make this more widespread is a difficult issue and one which I don’t think will be resolved any time soon, but it is certainly something that ought to be more public.
    Thank you for this great post,

  2. a very poignant account of a situation that speaks very close to all of us teachers here in brazil… anyway, i just want to comment on something you said that i found irresistibly true “when it comes to education, everyone is an expert.” so true! it’s funny that with so many “education specialists” we should be faced with so many challenges…

  3. The ‘come to our school and learn English faster!’ is an advertising trick you will see a lot in Turkey. I remember the elementary level courses at my old school being rejigged to cram the same content that was previously spread over 5 course into 3 because other schools were promising to get the learners from beginner to pre-int in ‘just 3 months!’

    The obsession here is not so much with the ‘easy’ but the ‘quick’. People want to reach a certain level in as a short a time as possible and will generally go to the school that promises as much. Although slightly different to the situation you describe, it does show once again the effect of advertising on the part of private language institutions over actually catering to the needs of studentsç

  4. Hang on a minute “I’ve never lived or studied abroad” puts you very very high on the people-with-a-gift-for-languages scale. On the nature-nurture cline, it seems perfectly obvious to me that just as some people have a gift for music/maths/painting/etc others have a gift for languages. Ok it takes work to get to the top rung where you so obviously are, but for most people, no amount of work will ever get them there. Language is a funny thing, involving so much more than just words, and – from my personal experience – I know with absolute certainty that I for one would never have learnt a second language other than by immersion (which is why I find it easy to empathise with my students who are struggling to learn my L1).
    Thanks for a great read and to tyson seburn for point ing me here

  5. I completely agree with you. It is just about craving a thing and fully devoting oneself to it. Full immersions, passion and a huge willingness to a passionate analysis of language are the keys apart from whether one has lived or not abroad.
    Yours is a wonderful entry. Thank you so much.

    A little remark: a native speaker of English would never write “… as I and so many other friends of mine have done?” but they would rather say: “…as many other friends of mine and I…”.

  6. Great post!
    You are right when mentioning courses in Brazil that promise students they’ll speak in no time. Unfortunately, in my past teaching experiences, I have seen students graduate, knowing insufficient english to get through life and just because the course promises a specific length of time to make one speak fluently.
    Sadly enough, these students just don’t continue practicing the language because they think a “diploma” is sufficient. The same goes to those who have spent one or two months learning english abroad. Many think they are already proficient and nothing else needs to be done. Learning is an endless process.

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