Truly a Frequently Asked Question
I have been asked that question many times. Often it’s asked by a friend who is thinking about buying one of the big-name language packages that cost several hundred dollars. They want to know if the purchase will be a good investment, or, like a typical piece of exercise equipment that looked so good in the infomercial, will it be gathering dust in a few weeks due to lack of use? Sometimes, a student in a course will ask, wanting to know if the time spent in class is worth it. After all, there are so many different good ways to learn Spanish nowadays. Or are there? What is it that really makes the difference?
The Teaching Method Makes the Difference
The thing that makes the difference is the method that is used, not the means by which it is delivered. It doesn’t matter a whole lot whether a lesson is delivered via internet video, face-to-face classroom teaching, or an expensive big-name language package. But, most of the existing efforts to teach foreign languages aren’t effective. I have taught Spanish to adults and youth using several different methodologies, used/analyzed dozens of Spanish textbooks, and tried many of the language corporations’ products. I have a had a continual drive to find out what works best to help language learners internalize a second language, so they can communicate confidently with native speakers of the new language. I have discovered many useful principles and a methodology which works better than any other. But, it may be useful to begin by looking at what doesn’t work.
Public Education Language Teaching
Textbook publishers are doing their best to design their books in a way that is appealing to students. They try to make all of the grammar and practice exercises relevant, and they insert culturally related material in an effort to engage students. But, if you (or someone you know) has ever taken Spanish in school using a textbook, here’s a little pop quiz for you:
1. By the end of the semester or school year, how well could you (they) communicate in Spanish?
A. Like a native.
B. Not too bad.
C. Not very well.
D. Not at all.
Don’t feel bad if your answer was not at all. I feel your pain. I had a great middle school Spanish teacher, and one high school teacher that was good (then there was the Spanish 3 teacher that would have been better at teaching math, in my opinion). But, I didn’t learn to speak Spanish in school.
Big-Name Packages Don’t Succeed at Developing Language Fluency
Even though they are well known, the best-known language products don’t encourage fluency. How is that possible? Because they are built around obsolete teaching methods that aren’t designed for the way your mind learns languages. Current studies on human learning and language processing prove that the old ways are obsolete. It doesn’t matter what technology is used if it isn’t in sync with your mind’s amazing power to learn. Things have changed remarkably in the understanding of how the human mind works, and there is a better way for adults to learn a second language.
How Your Brain Isn’t Wired to Learn Language
Think about how your brain was wired to learn English (if English is your native language). Did your parents give you a list of vocabulary which was irrelevant to what was happening around you, and expect you to memorize the words? Did you learn how to speak in your first few years by hearing a random grammar principle being explained with no context, and then doing practice exercises or outlining sentence structures? The idea is ridiculous, isn’t it?
If you never truly learned a foreign language in school, it is certain that the problem was not in your ability to learn a language. Think about it. You are fluent in English right now. The reason probably wasn’t your teacher. The problem lies in the methods that teachers were taught to use when teaching foreign language. Doing things like vocabulary drills, memorization games, written exercises, speaking with a partner about a topic chosen for you by your textbook, and all of the traditional Spanish classroom activities, are not effective ways to learn a new language. You can pick up some vocabulary that way, learn a few phrases to ask about things like where the bathroom is, or how to introduce yourself to strangers. But, you’ll never learn how to communicate beyond a superficial level because your mind isn’t being taught in the same way it was designed to receive a new language.
Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).