Burning the Books: Language Learning After High School

crop black man working at home

It’s been a while since I set foot in my school halls, so today I spoke to my very own brother, to determine the current experience of language learning in mainstream education.

Admittedly, I only have one particular memory of Spanish class, in which my classmates seemed fascinated by the prospect of pioneering their own language out of symbols, instead of contemplating the present perfect continuous conjugation. 

What can I say? Creative minds need an outlet.  

Nowadays, language learning is a true passion of mine. However, I only realised that after leaving the background of mainstream education.

Languages in the Real World

At university, I was surrounded by people who actively chose to study three languages as part of a joint degree. Imagine taking Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese! My peers had decided to stick with a language of choice throughout their schooling and study yet more world languages.

I opted to take Spanish as part of my degree, and was extremely aware that I would be surrounded by seasoned language learners. However, I quickly found that when using the language skills I had developed in the school curriculum, my speech appeared rigid to the native ear. I lacked the relevant slang, expressions, and personality that I can portray in English. Not to mention, I lacked a capacity to listen and respond with ease to spontaneous conversational topics.

Similarly, when I attended a recent French class and was greeted with the phrase: “cou cou” (pronounced “koo koo”), I assumed that we would be imitating birds for the rest of the lesson. After being momentarily startled, I realised that “cou cou” is simply a friendly or informal greeting. I was totally unprepared for the true “french of France”, as it were. 

Since languages are incredibly dynamic, exam boards must seek to reflect the language as a living instrument of communication, so that teaching can prepare us for real-world interactions. Other considerations, like native-speaking language assistants in classrooms, cultivate the environment for immersion and experimentation. 

Languages in the Mainstream

If you attended a British school, I am assuming that you had to select either: French, German, Spanish or Latin, in the early High school years.

Reflecting on his experience, Talib noticed the transition from learning French as a “fun” and “interactive” activity, to more of a “chore” during the later years. This included fewer activities, opportunities to speak freely to partners and learn about the language’s cultural and historical context. 

With exams looming, there is less room for error or experimentation with the language, and heightened importance of linguistic theory and a tick-box approach to learning. It seems that little has changed since my High school years, concerning the structure, method and overall mentality towards languages.

The rationale behind traditional language learning in British mainstream education mandates that language acquisition is compulsory, but may not promote the true importance of it as a universal life skill.

Talib looking trés dramatique

Language in the Future

I often speculate about the future of language learning: 

Will languages become homogeneous? 

Will speech become centralised around the most popular dialects? 

Will Google completely eradicate the need for language learning with its innovative earpieces that can understand an array of speech in real-time?

What is certain going forward is that many individuals require defined goals, not least with language learning. According to Talib, regardless of the language or level, goals that supersede those “tick box” objectives are essential for a sense of progression and satisfaction in learning.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been toying with the idea that when speaking different languages, we can adopt a slightly altered personality.

I feel empowered to be more direct in Spanish, and in French, I feel inspired to elaborate and be a better storyteller. I feel a sense of freedom through language learning but for others, it’s a tool to be utilised or a chance to play on Duolingo while waiting for the bus.

What about you? What’s your experience with language learning?

Let me know in the comments below!

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