I have WordPress set to automatically post to Facebook, which means many of you reading this aren’t even language teachers. Allow me, then, to explain why you don’t know the language you studied in school (unless, of course, you were lucky enough to have spent time abroad, or to have found yourself exposed to the language in some meaningful way, thus, correcting decades of misinformed pedagogy still pervasive today)…
As the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) was emerging in the late 60’s and early 70’s, some amazing research was being done on how humans acquire langauges, but the typical language teacher, Teacher X, got her degree in 1969, so none of that made its way into her teacher training.
Teacher X began teaching Spanish in 1970, and had a successful and respectable career spanning over 3 decades, retiring in 2005. As a model teacher in the school, she had been mentoring graduate student teachers from a nearby university each year since 1975 (a common requirement in teacher training). Thus, the 30 years of student teachers were influenced by the practices of Teacher X, which was in no way influenced by such a new field at the time, SLA (blind leading the blind?).
You would think that Teacher X learned about how humans acquire languages (i.e. SLA) throughout the years, but not really. Aside from years of “in-service” professional development training sessions at her school, in which pretty much the same old pedagogy wrapped up in new packaging was presented along with new activities not fundamentally different, Teacher X couldn’t possibly keep up with the mind-blowing ideas coming from SLA that would’ve altered her practice significantly. In fact, it would’ve likely doubled, or tripled the amount of prep work, which simply wasn’t available for a typical teacher like Teacher X already doing most planning at home during her free time. It should be noted that under these typical conditions, Teacher X is in no way accountable for not staying current, yet nonetheless contributed to life long learner-like behaviour instead actual improvement as a language teacher over the years.
But Teacher X retired in 2005, so you would think that the research from the 70’s would have caught up to the language teaching world at large by then, right? No. Not only was Teacher X espousing her misinformed practices right up until 2005 (to the then student teacher who’s teaching right now…set to retire in 2040!), but so were the professors in the teacher training programs graduating a new crop of misinformed teachers as well! In fact, a decade hasn’t changed much—most language teacher trainers are still at it today, in the dark, and out of their element (Q: who trains the trainers?).
Sadly, education is among the slowest moving industries, which certainly explains why languages are still being taught exclusively, if outright ineffectively. Some of us are taking a stand, and others are just leaving the teaching profession out of frustration (or maybe just a decent full time job with far less stress). So, Facebook readers, et al., you are not “bad at languages”—a false idea planted in your mind by misinformed teachers, for which the world owes you a mighty apology—because all humans can acquire a second language! All you need to do is listen to and read messages you understand in another language. Trained teachers can and should facilitate that, but in their absence you have resources (seriously, all you need to do is have someone, a computer, or subtitles tell you what a word/phrase in another language means in English, and then once you listen to and read that word/phrase in new contexts you will begin to acquire the language over time, ESPECIALLY if you’re interested in the content. There’s no NEED to study grammar. Those benefits come much, much later, if at all).
So, there’s hope for you, reader, but for current students not so much. Why? Current teachers won’t change their practices unless they feel pressured by an administration “in the know,” or one that’s receptive and influenced by incoming new teachers with informed training, of which there are still quite few. For now we’ll have to wait until all teacher trainers recognize undisputed facts about SLA, and then graduate new teachers who know those facts, and who then successfully challenge the status quo once they begin teaching, and who then mentor the new graduate student teachers, etc.. Not a very easy thing to do.