How Americans Learn Foreign Languages
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! To open, I will reveal the answer to the question I know the world has been asking, "How do Americans learn second languages"? While I know foreign language skills in America are often discussed, the real answer is quite simple, they don't.
With an estimated 56% of the world being bilingual, the fact that the United States is sitting at around 20% should be appalling to anyone who takes language learning and language skills seriously. The foreign language education as it is applied in modern day America is atrocious and has followed suit with the rest of the public education system. What's worse is that 20% number is padded by people who speak English as a second language.
With all that said, there are strategies that you can use to set yourself up for success in your language acquisition. In order to understand the strategy, though, it is important to understand why classroom lessons don't create lasting proficiency, it is important to understand what they do wrong.
Why America is falling behind in foreign language learning
One thing that has been made clear in the past two decades is that student fluency rates will continue to plummet until the classroom process is reevaluated. There is no one segment that is better than any of the others, either. Even the university system in the United States is completely broken when it comes to foreign language skills.
Yes, most of the staff is made up of native speakers. Those native speakers, however, are usually so focused on finishing their Masters or their PhD that they let the class they are supposed to be leading suffer. Interestingly enough, every country I've ever lived in had teachers who were non-natives teaching the second language. While there are clear advantages to learning from a native speaker, there is also untold advantage from learning from someone who shares the same target language as you. Especially if they have already learned it as their second language.
There is something, however, that is not the fault of educators and that is ease of access. Most countries where people are fluent in 2 or more languages (which is most of them) border a country that speaks a different language. In fact, in many cases countries have multiple prominent languages within their borders. Planning in person trips to different places that allow one to practice outside of their classes allows people to practice key words and see real world examples. Unfortunately, this is not quite as easy within the United States.
Sure, there are communities of people who speak any number of languages, but those communities tend to be less welcoming. That said, the worst thing that can happen is that they don't help you. So it is always worth it to go out and try to speak your target language in a native speaking community. If you don't, you may live to regret it.
Why Americans regret not learning a second language
Picking up a new language is one of the most difficult things someone can do. Not because it is inherently difficult and certainly not because any one language more difficult than the others, in fact 3 year old children around the world are able to speak just about any language. No, the difficulty in developing language skills comes from the discipline and repetition they demand.
For the average American, language learning is usually secondary to getting good test results. Memorize and regurgitate, take the grade, leave the knowledge behind. While it is still important to maintain high grades in other countries, students there are not expected, ever, to get a perfect score. While I didn't enjoy many aspects of the education system in the other countries I lived in, I did find their grading system to be superior, though it confounded me at first.
The European grading system, in so much as I have been exposed to it, places less emphasis on getting high marks than the United States system. In a way, this is similar to the idea of progressive overload I have discussed before.
When you are hitting 80/100 you are considered an expert at whichever level the course is meant for that year. Meanwhile 50/100 is still a passing grade and an indication that at least some of the material is sticking; and if some of the material is sticking that means the students can handle more. It certainly feels intense, but the incentives built into the system are simply better.
With a staggering 56% of the global population being bilingual, many Americans are falling quickly behind on the global competitive stage. More jobs and careers require bilingualism than ever before and the trend doesn't seem to be slowing down. Not just that, but many careers pay more for language skills. For more on that, see this article I wrote about leveraging language skills to get a job:
Now that we have seen the problems, what are the solutions and how can they be implemented? The necessity of language skills is not going away any time soon, so learning a second language is always going to be advantageous. This is how I went about it (and go about it) living in the US currently.
Find Language Teachers
This might seem too oversimplified, but when broken down it is a bit more complex than it may first appear. When working towards fluency, one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle to find typically is an educator with the ability to develop lessons that work for an individual.
Yes, there are overarching concepts and methods of learning that everyone will benefit from, but at the end of the day nothing works for everyone. Some people do better with a native speaker for a teacher. Some people prefer to have someone who learned the target language as a second or third language. The best strategy for finding a good teacher is understanding what works best for you.
In order to set yourself up for success, it is key that you define, for yourself, what your goals are. If fluency is your goal, great! If proficiency enough to hold a conversation is what you want, that is also great! It doesn't matter what your goal is going in, just that you have a goal.
Personally, I think that conversational is a great goal that comes with some wonderful benefits. Just being conversational will allow you to explore the culture, delve into business, and even attend school in a different country.
Irrespective of what you decide, make sure you know that whoever you engage as a teacher understands your goals and the driving forces behind them. Strategies change based on what you want and when you want it, but no one can determine those things for you. Before embarking on your language learning journey, I encourage you to really sit down and understand what you seek to gain from the experience. Whether it's the ability to participate in another culture or to escape the restraints of only speaking one language, if you understand what you want and why, the how tends to fall into place.
Some Solo Learning Strategies
If you are really determined to attempt teaching yourself the language, you are going to need some resources. While I certainly believe that having someone to practice with grows more and more important the better one gets at a given language, I also know it isn't absolutely necessary. But if you've never done it before, it can be difficult to understand where to focus first. After all, a language is no minute thing.
The Building Blocks - Vocabulary
I talk about how important a large vocabulary is rather often, and it is just important in one's native language as it is when learning a second language. Understanding the meaning of a word is one thing, but being able to use it in various situations, or replace it with something better, is the true marker of proficiency.
Build up a foundation of vocabulary words that you can use consistently when starting out and you will be just fine. Sure, you may feel that you are repeating yourself, and you may in fact be, but that doesn't change the fact that at least you have begun to use the language. It is better to be repetitive than silent.
When I say pocket phrases, I don't mean a list of sentences that you have on hand at all times to read off from a sheet of paper. I am talking about things that you say all the time in your native language that would be beneficial to you in your target language. Most language learners skip this step and it can be a pain to backtrack because at a certain point, this will feel too simple, even if it is effective.
When speaking another language, you will still think the same way. You are not changing brains, just languages. Therefore, understanding how you speak in your native language is paramount to your success in learning another language. One of the reasons students struggle in school is that these things are left by the way side. Students are taught to think how the teachers think (implicitly or explicitly) rather than learning to think in the language they are studying. By and large, most teachers are doing their best, but the words they tend to focus on combined with a lack of speaking exercises causes American students to fall behind.
Keeping a mental list of sentences that you area always using in your native language will allow you to avoid this pitfall. Sure, learn what the teacher wants you to learn for the sake of the test, but beyond that focus on what you plan to use most often outside of the classroom. Your language ability is far more important outside of the school.
With that, make sure you are actively speaking these aloud. In order to develop a personal connection with the language, it is vital that you spend time learning on your own time. If you need to make it a game, then do it. Whatever you need to do to achieve your goal, do it.
There are strategies that can accelerate and enhance your language acquisition, but they all require work on your part. Accent work is a "trick" but it is also a lot of work and demands consistency for quality results. I can give you the roadmap, but I cannot learn the language for you.
Becoming bilingual is difficult, but you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great. Here I’ve given you some of the tools, but in the end, there is no comprehensive guide, no tips or tricks to carry anyone across the finish line. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing. I’ll be here rooting for you and watching your progress.
For more content find me on Twitter or Instagram. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, try out Pimsleur free for 7 days using this link. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.