Language Goals and Frustrations - The Linguist

Language Goals and Frustrations

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.

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13 comments on “Language Goals and Frustrations

Name *Irena

“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?”

If we’re talking about Russian programs in universities, then producing fluent and accurate speakers of Russian should be the goal. If universities don’t take on this task, then who will? Other (non-university) programs can have different goals.

    Steve Post author

    I agree that the goal should be to produce fluent speakers, but the universities are not doing it. If the students can achieve the ability to read in the language, and to understand the language, at least some will proceed to fluency in speaking and writing. Right now most students simply abandon the study of the language.


      Most people abandon language study, but also, most people think that studying literature in language classes is a waste of time. (Just to be clear, I’m not one of those people. I learned Russian first and foremost because I wanted to read Russian literature in the original.) So, having people read more in intro language classes would probably reduce enrolment even further. If you don’t believe me, just ask people (potential language learners), and see what they tell you. That doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t be asked to read more, but it is to say that enrolment numbers would likely drop even further. However, those who stayed would learn more.

        Steve Post author

        You are right. Reading and listening should not be limited to literature, especially not the classics of literature. People should read what interests them. At our Russian library at LingQ, we have a great variety, including podcasts, lots of interviews from Echo Moskvi, all with both audio and text. I recently bought the e-book and audio book of Akunin’s History of Russia, which I imported into LingQ just to pick up the words I don’t know and to save phrases that help me with the grammar. I found similar resources for Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, Korean, Romanian etc. If students are not interested in anything, and don’t read, that is a different problem.


          Different people have different interests. How do you arrange for everyone to read what interests him/her in a language class? It seems to me that your methods are better suited for self-study than for a class. Which is fine. Self-study is an important component of language learning.

          I learned Russian via a combination of traditional university courses and a lot of independent study. The courses taught me the grammar (quite effectively; I’m grateful), and I taught myself to read. I think it was a good arrangement: I would have struggled to learn the nuts and bolts of the language without expert guidance, but once I had a more-or-less solid grasp of grammar (and obviously, some basic vocabulary), I was perfectly capable of making my way through Russian texts on my own (initially, I’d spend more time with the dictionary than with the text, but of course that was just a phase, and it passed in due time). All in all, I was able to read Russian multi-volumes with a reasonable degree of competence after about a year and a half of Russian study. Not bad, especially given that you can easily get a BA in Russian (which I didn’t; Russian was a hobby for me) without ever approaching that level. But here’s the thing: I put in waaay more time and effort into my Russian study than is considered reasonable to expect of college students. And if you don’t put in the time and effort, then you don’t get the results.

          Also, as my name may suggest, I’m a native speaker of another Slavic language, which did help me with Russian. But I see no reason why native English speakers couldn’t accomplish in (say) three years what I accomplished in one and a half. Do you? (And yet, very few do.) But the key is to put in far more time and effort than is considered “reasonable” these days.


Also, I think that many (most?) language courses in universities are simply not demanding enough, and that’s why people don’t learn much. But what are you going to do? Apparently, a typical college student studies less than 15 hours per week outside of class (that’s for all classes put together). So, assuming a student takes 4-5 classes in a given semester, that gives you 3-4 hours per week for each course. Of course you can learn that way, but you aren’t going to learn very fast, no matter what method you use. Instructors can certainly demand more work than that, but that leads to a drop in enrolment, doesn’t it?

Name *mark

Hello Steve my name is Mark, I’m a huge fan of yours and love learning studing several currently. I use lingq everyday and have a method that has been working for me. I hand write every unknown word down with the meaning. It’s takes a lot of time but works for me. I get through the lessons creating my own glossary if you will and have worked my way to intermediate lessons. Currently reading your book in Spanish and french (great stuff). Would love your opinion on this method and any other translation methods,direct translation, faithful, word for word, grammar translation methods, etc you are great inspiration to me and many others. Please and thank you

    Steve Post author

    I think you know that I feel that the most important thing for a language learner is to be independent and motivated and stay with the task. You obviously are. I did a lot of hand writing when I learned Mandarin. I am a little lazier now so I don’t do it. I am sure it is effective if one has the discipline to do it. But more than that, it is our attitude and time commitment that matter. You are on the right path!

Name Sharon Hellmann

I’ve long heard the term “The 4%ers” referring to the very small group who continue from basic high school graduation requirement study of a language to study further in college, travel, and become significantly proficient in a language. It is no surprise that the Australian study found such a high attrition rate. I am completely in agreement with you that focusing on the INPUT skills of listening and reading is the most enjoyable way to build functional language skills in a majority of learners.

Name *Maureen

As someone who (now) enjoys figuring out the nuances of grammatical structures like puzzles, and as someone who has only learned foreign languages as a teenager and adult, the free form way of teaching language through listening and speaking only is a very difficult thing for me to get used to as a method for teaching now that I am an elementary school language teacher. On top of wanting to make the classes fun for the kids, keeping a hold of the attention of antsy children to actually teach them things in groups requires a lot of creativity on my part, especially when most of the littlest ones (4 and 5 year-olds) aren’t at the level of understanding that they are learning a different language at all.

Name *joe


I believe “confidence” is the most important part of language learning. I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I started learning French a few years ago. But day but day I followed your teachings. You need little bite-size goals at first.
You need some early successes. Mastering a roleplaying situation would make you “feel” like you had a success. Whereas just understanding grammar, – where a verb and a noun goes – that should come later.
English speakers don’t learn grammar until after they have a feel for the language. This is where your “reading and listening” approach is important. I feel that grammar is more about tuning your ear to the rhythms of the language and not about knowing “rules” about adverbs and conjunctions.
Language learning should be exciting and I agree with your ideas that food and culture are a big part of language learning.
But most importantly you need to build up a person’s “confidence” so they can keep going. It’s a long slog.
People need little rewards along the way. They need to see that they are having some little successes. Reading a book in French- even a children’s book – is a small victory, listening to a song in French is a small victory. Watching a scene from a movie in French and understanding it is a small victory. Playing a role-playing game is a small victory.
You need to build up your confidence.

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