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Can you learn a foreign language in High School?
According to this economist’s article, only 1% of U.S. high school students reach high-level fluency in a foreign language from their high school language program. The author goes on to argue that it would be better for the U.S.A. to abandon high school foreign language classes altogether. So what is responsible for such a poor statistic? The attitude of those involved (the board of education, teachers and pupils) or the pedagogical method itself?
From the board of education’s perspective, the immediate goal of foreign language education is simply to give students an exposure to foreign languages, and from the school’s perspective the course is conducted and used to grade and rank students. Students, however, are not always privy to these short-term goals held by their superiors.
That’s why students who wish to reach fluency and who dutiful follow the course material, are left disappointed with their foreign language education despite performing the best in them. To say that this discrepency in fluency and grades arises from both poor expectation management on the part of the education program and the actual pedagogical methods employed by the program.
In terms of expectation management, many students learn a language in order to actually speak the language and to be able to live in that country if the need or opportunity were to arise. The choice is therefore to decide, either to burst this bubble, explaining that the high school course is only an introduction, and perfect scores in exams would never be enough for the students to reach fluency, or the education board can review the curriculum to provide a more immersive foreign language environment that can lead to multilingual students by the end of the high school program.
The third alternative, of course, is to abandon foreign language education altogether. This might be a reality given English speaking countries’ distinct disadvantage of perceived self-sufficiency. However, at least in such a case, students would not be left disappointed at the end of the high school program with their education. It’s unjust to the student who dedicated time and energy to completing the text-book exercises only to find out two years later that they cannot hold a 2-minute conversation with a native speaker they met online.
We know that good curriculums do exist and long-term sustainable goals can make successful high school language programs. There are countless countries that have long-term language programs that work. Belgium, Germany and Finland are good examples. However, growing up in Australia, I studied high school Japanese for 5 years and despite enjoying the class and indeed even with the great relationships I had with the teachers, I can say I never reached a tiny bit of competence in Japanese listening and speaking. I can read some Hiragana and Katakana but that’s it. The same applies to most of my colleagues. Universities do the same, so they’re not completely off the hook, but perhaps no one is deluded enough to expect fluency after taking a couple of courses in university.
Pengguin is offering to be a guide to fill in the gaps that high school could never give. An immersion experience that can only be found in the friendlist of online communities. Since we are all language learners, each user is patient with others. We are here to learn, not only to play, so it is a place where mutual help is provided for while having fun. Waiting for the curriculum to change is like waiting for the Catholic Church to abandon priestly celibacy. Pengguin aims to disrupt language learning, both the attitude and the pedagogical form, and in this way it will make polyglots of the world, including English speaking nations, one game at a time.