In a ‘flat’ world, where ideas and goods move freely and rapidly, dealing with other people – and other kinds of people – is vastly more important than it ever was. Learning other languages is a skill central to that ability.

How to acquire that skill?

I speak some Asian and European languages, a few of which I know well enough to use professionally. I have attended several courses in well-known institutions, including the US diplomats’ school, the Foreign Service Institute, and the World Bank, and have spoken to many students struggling with foreign languages. That experience has led to a dispiriting conclusion: the art of learning languages is still in an underdeveloped state. It badly needs some improvements.

A vast number of people try to learn foreign languages. The overwhelming majority gives up very soon. Of the others, a huge proportion manages only a smattering. A very small number learn the language well. The learning process has a lot to do with that appalling outcome.

Let us talk of nine major problems and some possible changes. Perhaps some good instructors are using some of them already.

Problem 1: The process is not learner based. Little thought is given to what the student needs or wants. The teacher or the school decides in advance the text to follow and method to use. The students are expected to fall in line. Nobody asks them what is helpful for them or checks with them if the instruction is being valuable. The typical course-end evaluation evokes neither candor nor correction.

Change: Make the process firmly student-centered. Don’t begin the class till the teacher has talked in depth with students and found out what they want and why. It is also the time to seek their commitment to develop and use a personal learning plan. Together the plans of students would be the basis of the class plan. This is not bureaucratic or waste of time. In fact, without such a plan much of the subsequent teaching is a waste of time. The students must be the prime mover. They must be taught to take charge of their learning process from the first day.

Problem 2: The process is instructor based. The teacher decides how the learning proceeds: its style, tempo and focus of content. Predictably, the result is a process that suits the teacher best: it is based on what was there before or what the teacher is used to or can devise most easily. Almost always what is chosen is most convenient for the teacher. It will be best for the student only by accident.

Change: Start a process that requires the teacher to ascertain the students’ priorities and adapt both content and style to those priorities. It would be easy to develop a variety of tools, and then leave to individual teachers to choose the ones that best fit their circumstances. More important, the teachers must be trained in the consultative process, so that even when students come with no clearer notion than they want to learn a language, the teacher can help them identify their precise goals and priorities.

Problem 3: The process is not based on students’ interests and priorities. Scant attention is given to the students’ purpose or goal. If we don’t know why they want to learn a language, we wouldn’t know how to tap their motivation. The content of the course will not meet the student’s priority except by accident. Worse, the method of teaching will frustrate the students. They will not learn except slowly and reluctantly, and many will shortly give up learning.

Change: Pay heed to students’ preferences. If their priorities are not clear to them, we must help them clarify and articulate them. The course must respond to those, in content and process. Teaching verbs or vocabulary, or anything for that matter, must follow the priorities of students. That alone will keep them interested and motivated. Lessons must be interspersed with repeated checks of what the students want to learn, what amuses or intrigues them, what fits best with their priorities.

Problem 4: It is still largely drill and memorization. The world has moved on, with smart phones, broadband internet and swift-sequence movies, but language teaching seems largely stuck in old-fashioned rote and memory work. Our texts are dull, our classes humorless, our pedagogy little evolved from village coaching. No wonder students give up half-way or quarter-way – unless they have to pass a test (in which case they give up after the test).

Change: Make the best use of memory. Of course, learning a new language involves remembering new things, but one remembers best what one finds intriguing. The texts chosen must reflect known student interests, carefully ascertained. The main business is to engage the student: through video and film excerpts, case study vignettes, structured exercises, role plays and debates. Inviting students to devise the mode and form teams are two known ways to generate student involvement. The focus needs to be on student activity and student preferred activity, the more varied the better.

Problem 5: The process uses present resources poorly. The absence of focus on the student shows up in the poor use even of the most traditional resources such as books, dictionaries, libraries, and bookstores. Teachers never bring into the class six different dictionaries and discuss their relative strengths. Nor do they discuss easily accessible or particularly useful libraries and bookstores. The omission neglects the main task, to equip the student to learn on his own.

Change: Make better use of conventional resources to set the students on the road to self-learning. That is the teacher’s key role. The teacher should push the students prepare to individual plans to learn the language and help them to know and use the available resources effectively. Use of new tools is no substitute for good use of old tools.

Problem 6: Peer learning is not used or used primitively. The most astounding lack in present language learning is the near total absence of peer learning. Most teachers, enjoying the glow of their central role, ignore the potent device of small-group learning and overlook the fact that even the best teacher can never supplant the prodigious benefit of colleague tutoring and learning.

Change: Use imagination and ingenuity, not money or resources, to make great use of peer learning techniques proven to be highly productive. Teachers could form students into pairs, triads or quartets – depending again on students’ inclination and past experience – with their own rules of preparation, practice and mutual tutoring. Teachers can usefully track the progress of the peer groups, their problems and successes, and through common plenary discussion help weaker groups pick up steam and strengthen the learning of its members.

Problem 7: The language teaching process largely overlooks the effective use of technology. It is curious that many teachers leave the students to use computer-based courses without much guidance or, in some institutions, simply direct them to use one prescribed course without much of a discussion about the different ways of using such courses effectively.

Change: Take a good look at the spectacular array of computer-based courses now available. It is silly to waste precious class time when students can be asked to bring themselves up to speed by doing prerequisite work at home on the computer. In fact, the existing courses have different advantages, and the teacher should discuss their relative merits with students and encourage them to use multiple resources for better learning. Teachers themselves can make advantageous use of computers by preparing lessons and exercises on the computer and sending them to students in advance for preparation ahead of a class. Innovative use of technology is still a curiously neglected area of language learning.

Problem 8: The process scarcely uses the internet. One would think that language teachers haven’t heard of the internet age. Their use of the internet is limited, sporadic and unimaginative.

Change: Encourage the wide, sustained use of the internet. New and ingenious resources are daily becoming more abundantly available on the web. Competing vendors are developing and marketing tools, sometimes free and sometimes at reasonable prices, that may well appeal to several students. Handy guides on verbs, phrases and idioms, helpfully sequenced and colorfully diagrammed, impressively graduated exercises with the supreme advantage of swift feedback, graphically illustrated words or passages, are key resources easy to access and foolish to overlook.

Problem 9: Guided practice is limited or non-existent. The large majority of language students take lessons, occasionally supplement them with some books or computer courses, and then swim or sink – mostly sink. The crucial role of guided, risk-less practice in reinforcing lessons and motivating further lessons is simply not a part of their curriculum.

Change: It is shamefully inept and wasteful to plan language learning without providing for guided practice. Yet that is the common practice. Students must have the chance to practice what they learn, in each lesson and over and over again, till they are comfortable enough to look forward to the next lesson. It is senseless to move to the past tense till students have mastered the present tense or to advance to the subjunctive mood when students can barely form a sentence in the indicative mood. A course that does not clearly provide for guided practice is essentially a sham. Many courses regrettably are.

The main dilemma of language teaching is this: the teacher is with the student only for a short time, while language learning is a life-long process. The perceptive teachers would realize this and teach the students, not so much words, verbs, tenses, idioms (which are all secondary), as how to teach themselves. They would instill in them a process of self-learning, propelled both by a motivation to learn and the skill to do it by themselves. Few teachers in my experience seem even aware of this. They do little to discuss the issue with students and orient them to tools that can aid their self-learning. No surprise they leave in their wake a large army of language drop-outs.

To discuss these problems is to highlight the possibility of a new approach to language teaching. The elements of a good approach are no mystery. A vast amount of research and experience clearly shows that in language pedagogy, not unlike in other kinds of pedagogy, the engagement and enthusiasm of the student is the key. This is more so if the student is an adult and knows his or her priorities. Our current methods, essentially conventional and teacher-centered, are an abysmal failure. It is time to drop them in favor of a student-centered approach that can quickly raise our rate of success with foreign languages and equip us to deal with a more competitive and dangerous world.

(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])