I had lunch earlier this week with a college professor who is head of the Asian language department in a large university here in Vancouver. He told me that a majority of students who enroll in Asian languages quit after the first year. I was surprised to hear that.

Then I did some research and discovered that the attrition rate – dropout rate – for all kinds of language programs is very, very high. This is true not only at universities, but also for individuals who buy language learning books, attend language schools or learn online, and even in high school programs.

In Australia, it was discovered that 94% of kids taking Mandarin Chinese in a certain school system didn’t complete the program. In fact, in the end, the program ended up being largely a situation where Mandarin speaking teachers taught Mandarin speaking immigrant children, because the only kids who stayed in the program were Chinese speakers who needed an easy credit.

Learning a Language is Too Hard

Language Goals and Frustrations

Getting back to this professor and our discussion: I asked him why they quit, to which he responded “they discover how hard it is.” It’s a lot of work, so they don’t want to do it. During our conversation, he also expressed some dissatisfaction with recent trends in language acquisition that are moving away from grammar-based instruction and have become more, as he put it, “touchy-feely communication and stuff like that.”

I am not sure what he meant. I have noted that role-playing seems quite popular in language instruction. For example, in government sponsored language instruction for immigrants here in Canada, all instruction has to conform to an approach called task-based language learning. In this instructional method, learners are asked to act out artificial scenarios where they pretend to be a checkout clerk in a store, hotel clerks, or other similar positions that are considered to represent their likely jobs in society.

It is hoped that by training these immigrants to use the language required for a specific position, the immigrants will not just acquire the language, but will be made ready for the job market. The problem is that these scenarios can’t predict what will be said to a checkout clerk in real life. Unless the person has a fairly good general level of comprehension, if he or she can just utter a limited range of phrases, there is a high risk of failure.

This is not unlike what happens in many language learning programs. Learners are pushed to produce the language before they understand it. I believe it is more productive to focus on comprehension via lot of listening and reading. This input activity should be based as much as possible and as soon as possible on subjects of interest to the learner. This becomes easier as the learner progresses in the language.

Once the learner acquires sufficient vocabulary and develops a better level of comprehension ability, he or she will be better prepared to speak on a variety of subjects and deal with different scenarios, both social and professional. This person may struggle at first, but with strong comprehension skills, speaking ability will grow through usage in real life situations.

Goals of the Student Versus Goals of the Teacher

But to get back to the professor, what was interesting to me was that this professor, in commenting on the large dropout rate, criticized students who weren’t prepared to put in enough hard work,  and lamented the fact that language instruction methodology was moving away from the traditional emphasis on grammar. I thought to myself, I wonder if the dropout rate isn’t related to how languages are taught. What are the goals that students have, and what are the goals that the teachers set for them?

Is the goal, for example, of a Russian language program, to produce fluent and accurate speakers of Russian? Or is it to make learners stay with the program, get a sense of the language and culture and be able to access some works of the culture? Can the option of working to grammatical perfection be saved for a later date? I was surprised to learn that in many Russian language programs, even in elite colleges, students mostly read the works of Russian literature in translation, after three or four years of study.

Language Goals and Frustrations - Reading Russian Literature

In my case, studying on my own, I was reading Tolstoy in the original, after six months of listening and reading, spending an hour or so per day. I spoke Russian very poorly at that time. I am much better now, although I still make mistakes when I speak. Studying on my own, I was spared the pressure of having to write exams in Russian or having my output correct. I can, however, read serious books and listen to audio-books in the language. I can watch movies without subtitles, and listen to radio interviews with practically full comprehension. What is more, the whole process was an enjoyable journey of discovery, with little frustration and a great sense of satisfaction.

To try to enforce, through instruction, drills and tests, the mastery of the fine points of Russian grammar upon someone who has little exposure to the language, seems to me guaranteed to discourage a large number of students. It is simply too difficult for most people to achieve the goal of correct usage of the language without enough exposure to the language. The goal of comprehension may be easier and less stressful, especially with the tools and resources available via the Internet

Time for Another Approach

Should the goal in a language program simply be to keep people in the program, to make it all enjoyable for them? Should everything else be secondary or subordinated to achieving this goal? How can a particular language program become so interesting and satisfying that people stay and do not drop out after the first or second year? How can the program provide the students with value that will be beneficial to them in the long run? Perhaps the goal should be simply to develop the ability to read and listen, so that reading, even if online with the help of an online dictionary, or watching movies with the help of subtitles, becomes enjoyable.

Language Goals and Frustrations - Watching Movies in a New Language There are those who are highly motivated to develop their Russian or Chinese or Spanish speaking skills. They are not the ones who abandon the program. If the initial focus is on comprehension, these language keeners will have the necessary background to proceed to accurate fluency at a later date, and even work towards the competence required to become translators or interpreters. However, for many students, an emphasis on grammatical accuracy, with a lot of rote memorization, drills, and tests, may be counterproductive since a majority of them are not going to be using Russian, Chinese or Spanish in any case.

In my view, wherever languages are taught, given the high dropout rate, frustration rate, attrition rate, the number one consideration should be how to keep people motivated, how to keep people with the program. If people put in the time and stay with the program, they will learn. They may not become perfect, but under the existing system most of them drop out anyway. So it seems to me it’s time for another approach.