The Big Problem with Learning Languages in a Classroom

Recently, I was talking to a girl I know who decided to start learning a language to be able to travel comfortably later this year. She is studying to be a lawyer at a university already, so she decided to take the language course through the university. The previous week, I had recommended a website where she could find a native speaker to practice with, a service that is free, (www.conversationexchange.com.) This was her response,

No, not yet. The reason is that I am worried about saying something wrong. I am kind of nervous to try, It’s also very uncomfortable for me to talk to people for the first time especially by Skype. Sometimes when I am in my language class, my professor will ask me a question. Even if I think I know the answer, I don’t want to say it because I think I might be wrong or I think I might have misunderstood the question.”

Where does negative feeling of being ‘incorrect or wrong’ come from??? Well, I will tell you what I think…

Schools from all around the world use a similar method for teaching groups of people. They present the information to the students, they ask some questions to make sure the students understand, theembarrassed girl intermediate englishy do some exercises and then they give you a test to evaluate your performance. This is the system I know and see the most often in public schools since, I was a child. Of course, there are exceptions. So what is the problem with the system?

There is only one goal for the student: To try to be correct!

The education system values these ideas: it is bad to make errors, to be incorrect or to not know the answer. If you are not correct, you will receive a penalty such as a lower grades or marks, social humiliation and you will likely feel stupid for not knowing the answers.

We are not borne with this knowledge, which is why we are in school or a course. The only way to learn is to make mistakes until you figure out how to do it correctly. This teaching method is accepted and is used because it allows teachers to measure results. The issue with this style of teaching is very clear when you compare learning a subject like math to learning a language. Math requires practice of a method to learn how to find the right answer. Language is creative and there are dozens of ways of expressing the same thought. There is no single answer that is right or wrong, just lots of practice to figure out how to say it better.

Anyone who is learning a language knows that you need try to use it. What happens is: we make lots of mistakes, ask lots of questions (questions that feel like stupid questions) and we need to be corrected all the time! In order to learn ANYTHING you need to try you start by taking a few guesses or tries until you find the answer.

I want you to imagine you are in a classroom and the teacher decides to ask you a question. You aren’t sure of the answer. This isn’t your fault because the teacher has not taught you or given an environment where you can safely ask the question. Next, you are classroom learning a languageforced to respond with either a guess or to announce to the entire class that you do not know the answer. Then you feel like an idiot, you feel stupid, you feel that everyone else in the class must think you are stupid too and of course, the teacher thinks you don’t remember anything they have taught you. This is a perfect example of the social humiliation aspect of being incorrect. If you are correct and you know the answer – you are allowed to skip the penalty for not knowing something new.

Where is the encouragement to try even if you are incorrect? Why is there no system to reward students for trying? The harder you try, the more you should be rewarded. A person who tries all the time, without fear of being embarrassed, receiving poor grades or looking stupid will perform better, they will learn more. They will ask more questions too.

Unfortunately, after going through an educational system that values ‘being correct’ above everything else; we develop a mental attitude that makes us hate the feeling of ‘being incorrect’. It has created an ego inside of us and that ego has one goal: I must be correct so I can be reward by the education system. Making mistakes is an unavoidable part of learning, teachers know this fact but the method of teaching does not create the optimal environment for learning.

I cannot offer any solutions to the problems in the teaching methods I have talked about today, but I hope that by telling you my opinion, you will be aware of your natural desire to be ‘correct’ all the time and where it comes from. Please share your opinion in the comments below and let me know if you like the educational system or if you feel it could be improved.

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Keeping your Motivation Momentum for Learning Part 3

The biggest motivator is progress, hands down (without any doubt). At times you can forget to look at the amazing progress you have made. Personally, I am not very good at documenting my progress on a calendar or even taking measurements before I start on a goal.  For this reason, it can feel like I am not making any progress.

To view part 1 of this article Click Here ‘Are you lacking discipline or motivation to learn English’

To view Part 2 of this article Click Here ‘Finding the long term motivation to learn another language’

What I find to be an effective way to appreciate my progress is to look back one month. It seems to be enough time that I can still clearly remember with clarity how I was feeling or what my skill level was at during that time. It is also enough time to make noticeable progress.

Motivational Quote Learn English

Last month I was working on my listening skills. Something I have be struggling with since I started to learn another language.  I decided to give a bit of special attention to my listening comprehension for about 3 weeks, mainly to improve conversations. I started listening to more challenging audio of conversations than I was comfortable listening to. I also had real conversations through language exchanges with native speakers. I really tried to focus on the sounds, tried to separate the sounds into words I was hearing and most importantly, I stopped trying to understand every word I was hearing.

The first time I listened to a 100% Spanish conversation I could only understand about 50% of what was said and I could only handle 10 minutes of listening at a time. My brain was overloaded. How was I feeling when I heard a difficult conversation? I was feeling frustrated that I could not understand more and that I was still overwhelmed by the speed of the conversation.

One month later: I can listen to 2-3 hours of Spanish audio at a time without my brain feeling tired or overwhelmed. The ‘intermediate’ audio now seems slow. Initially I could not hear that the hosts were actually speaking slower. I now understand 80-90% of all the words and can now learn new words just from listening to the audio.

Have I made progress? Absolutely but the truth is, if you asked me if I have made any progress since last week, I would say, “No, I do not feel I have made progress since last week.” This is why it is very important to remember back to a period of time you can still remember well; and make sure it is enough time where you have had time to make progress.

Momentum Quote Learn English

What if you cannot recognize any progress? Firstly, you need to ask yourself if you have been studying and if you method is working. If you are not sure, I would suggest trying a different technique. Sometimes we are stuck in a certain learning style but trying something different can be an easy solution to see more progress. If you are confident in the system you are using but you cannot recognize your results, you might have to find a way of recording you current level for comparison at a later time.

I use a goal tracking app to track how many new words I have learned, how many hours I have studied, hours spoken and hours I have listened to my target language. This is another tool I use to stay motivated. When I see that I have learned 2500+ words in 8 months or that I have studied over 400 hours… that’s cool. I have no choice but to recognize I have come a long way.

What methods have worked for you to stay motivated? Please share your strategies so that others can learn from your ideas!

P.S. – A side note, but a great piece of advice I would like to share with you about listening comprehension. If you struggle with understanding what you hear:

  1. Try to figure out what the person is talking about, in general. Stop trying to hear every word.
  2. Do not stop to think about a word you recognize: you either know it or you don’t. If you know the word, your brain will be able to process the meaning, don’t worry about the ones you don’t know or recognize.

Finding the Long Term Motivation to Learn another Language Part 2

I have already explained the difference between will-power and motivation. If you missed that blog post, you can find it here.

The next logical question is: How can I develop long term motivation after my initial motivation fades away?

There are various methods for maintaining your motivation that you might find online or in books. Most of them involve a structuredaily-motivation-910 where you set a goal, make a plan and take daily action toward achieving your goal. Personally, I have not found these to be very effective for more than 1-2 weeks. What happens is that I am naturally motivated to do something for the first few days, then for the next few days I am having to use my will-power to actually bring myself to do the task ‘that I am supposed to do’. Take note of the wording: I am supposed to do. By the end of the second week, the tasks to achieve the goal is starting to feel like a chore, a responsibility and I am not looking forward to doing it most of the time.

I recently found a motivation strategy that is working very well for me. To start, I use the typical goal setting steps:

  • Determine my end result
  • The date I want to achieve it by
  • The steps I need to take on a daily basis to achieve it

The next step is creating a vision that is so real you know it is going to happen. It is the type of vision that you can feel inside you. I want you to think about how it is going to feel when you reach your goal and what you are going to be experiencing when that happens. If this step only takes you a few minutes to think about, it is not vivid enough. It may even be something you develop over a few days. Develop your vision while you are naturally motivated within the first few days where you start to take action!

I will share with you my personal goal for learning another language, this is my plan:

End Result: To be able to have a conversation with any Spanish speaker, with any accent, in any type of situation without struggling and without feeling nervous. After this point I will work on improving my grammar and try to improve my level of the language to a higher level.

Date to Achieve My Goal: November 2015 for my trip to Colombia (10 months from the date of this post).

Steps I need to take on a daily basis: Learn something new, chat or talk with a native speaker, practice what I have learned, identify where I need to improve the most and give extra focus to that.

My vision: When I arrive to Colombia in November… I can feel the warm tropical air of the coast as I exit the airplane. When I am taking a taxi to my destination, I can have a pleasant conversation with the taxi driver and listen to him boast about how awesome his country is and why I am going to love it so much. I want to experience shopping at the local markets, be able to ask about the foreign fruits and vegetable and how they are used in cooking. I will have the opportunity to discover restaurants, bars and cultural events that a non-Spanish speakers will never even know about. I want to be able to ask locals about their culture and have discussions with interesting people I encounter along the way. I will feel small experiences during my trip that will fill my days when I move and live in South America.

My moment of recognition for reaching my goal is not going be on a certain date, or a particular number of words I know or a certain ‘level’ of the language that I reached. I will know I have accomplished my goal when I am living out my vision and what I feel in that immersion situation. I want this so badly, there is no way it is not going to happen.steve jobs quote

I don’t know if you can feel my vision the way I do, but I have so much motivation when I think about this experience, this vision, that I am unable to stop myself from studying Spanish. I have created a love for the language and a bit of an obsession, really.

The key is to feel your goal. To imagine how much better it will feel to live in that moment I have envisioned. Achieving that feeling that is very far away, beats the procrastination that may be tempting today. In other words, it might seem like a more enjoyable activity to watch a movie or go out with a friend instead of studying but neither of those activities will be as gratifying as taking a step towards reaching a bigger goal. I am not suggesting that you spend every free moment working on your goal, but do not allow other temptations to get in the way of achieving the minimum amount of daily dedication you would like to contribute to your long term goal.

I know that I have so much more work to do, but it doesn’t matter. I know that I have to work at it a little bit each day, it’s not going to happen overnight. This is a big goal and big goals can be very challenging to achieve. I find that each day as I am working towards learning a language, it feels like I am not making any progress. It seems like I am no better today than I was last week. I will share some of the obstacles I have faced with maintaining motivation in next week’s article and share some strategies for overcoming them.

Continue reading part 3 of this post by clicking here.