Foreign Languages Are Boring To Learn, So How Do We Make It Easier?

I have been a lifelong foreign language learner. I studied French in high school, Arabic in my freshman year of college (which by now is almost completely forgotten in the recesses of my brain), and then Chinese and Korean since sophomore year. Of these, Korean is probably the most advanced, followed by French, although I don't read it very often anymore in my research.

There is a wide belief that learning languages is impossible as an adult. If you challenge people on this, then they argue something about how adults can never be "native" speakers of the language if they didn't start learning as kids. The latter is probably true, but then, I can get into arguments with almost anyone about authenticity and accents (the obsession with Parisian French at the expense of every other accent, for instance).

But adults do have a tougher time learning foreign languages. The usual reasons given are lack of time due to other commitments and the fact that adults are less willing to make mistakes than kids, and thus, are unwilling to practice the language as frequently.

One argument I almost never hear though is that learning a language as an adult is just sheer boring.

Really, the language materials we use today in foreign language training are anything but practical and interesting. In every single language book I have ever been assigned, we have learned words and phrases about registering for courses, giving directions, eating food, etc. Never once have we learned anything substantive about politics, economics, or society.

This is such a shame. One of the benefits that adult foreign language learners bring to the table is their experience with current events and their opinions. Yet, we force them to leave behind all of their knowledge and start talking like a kid again. This is what always threw me off from learning languages: I just didn't care about the content, and that is really the only way for me to maintain my motivation.

When we finally change this picture, it is amazing how quickly language learning can take place.

After many runs to the bookstores in Seoul, I finally found two books in Korean this year that are perfect for language learning. The two are from a series called "common sense dictionaries," with one focusing on global economics and the other on politics. Each book has about one hundred 2-3 page entries, explaining topics in some detail.

For instance, one of the topics I learned about was quantitative easing (양적완화 in Korean in case you are curious). For an intermediate learner, such vocabulary probably sounds ridiculous, considering I sometimes forget the word for grass.

But here is the thing: I read about economics all the time, and so when I read the entry about quantitative easing, it made a lot of sense to me, even though I didn't know a lot of the vocabulary. Contextual clues were hugely helpful, since I know the kinds of vocabulary to expect from reading these sorts of topics in English.

Similarly, when I hired a tutor in Korea last year, I had the same rule about content, and so I spent most of the time describing the system of American government and current political news. Suddenly, I was making mistakes in the language and learning, because I knew what I wanted to say, and was willing to venture and try building the correct sentences to communicate that.

I wish there were more language materials in every language that took advantage of that sort of curiosity and desire for specialization. I would rather be able to hold a debate about a political topic in a foreign language than be another tourist asking for directions. That's what adults who are globally minded are probably reading anyway.

At the beginning of the last school year, I tested into Harvard's pre-advanced track for Korean. During the oral interview, I was asked to describe something meaningful to me, and so I described some of the current events going on in Korea. The teacher said that my skill surprised her, and that I was probably not going to enjoy language instruction at Harvard because it really focuses on Kpop (ostensibly due to popular demand). I ended up just independently studying the language instead.

As with my article today on TechCrunch about education startups, we need to do a better job in foreign language training of understanding our users and providing them the skills they actually are looking for. Adults are not kids, and the materials that are going to be enjoyed by one are probably not going to be enjoyed by the other. There is a lot of low hanging fruit here for a company to provide these sorts of resources.

Photo by Eric Andresen used under Creative Commons

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