Learning a Language in School

Languages - 01 Jul 2023 - Andrew

When I was in school I didn’t have a favorite subject because I found every subject boring, but finally in high school I had to take my first Spanish class as a requirement. It became my favorite subject, and for the first time in my life I became fascinated with learning foreign languages. When I told people that I wanted to learn languages, for some reason people always felt compelled to give me advice, even though these people never learned another language themselves. This advice was usually pretty bad, but I listened to it because I didn’t know any better. I remember people told me to use Rosetta Stone, which is expensive software that teaches you words by quizzing you using photos. Other advice I heard was to continue taking classes in school and eventually major in a language in university. On top of that, I also often heard the myth that you have to live in a foreign country in order to actually become fluent. This collection of advice from people who frankly didn’t know what they were talking about led me on a path to eventual failure, and the feeling that I “just couldn’t do it.”

After three years of Spanish classes in high school, I definitely had a grasp on the basics. Three years sounds like a long time just to learn the basics, but considering the overall time spent studying, I think this is actually not bad. It wasn’t until (community) college and eventually university where my experience with these Spanish classes became different.

The first year-long class I took was stressful, because we were told not to speak English at all. This sounds effective, but I found myself afraid of participating and embarrassing myself. After a while, the fear diminished a bit, but I still remember making mistakes and being laughed at. Not in a ridiculing way, but I still felt ashamed. This was nothing though compared to the classes that came after.

Unfortunately, my college/university experience was a bit misguided, and I had a few years focused on different subjects since I figured that majoring in Spanish wouldn’t lead to the career I wanted. And I also wanted to attempt self-learning a different language. But eventually I became really fed up with university, and the costs were absurdly high, so I looked into the quickest way to finish. And this was with a Spanish diploma, since I already had a lot of credit towards it. So I enrolled in more Spanish classes.

After dabbling in other languages for a few years on my own, my Spanish was really rusty. And on top of that, these classes that I was taking were now classes on other subjects taught in Spanish. It seemed like most of the time, I was just listening to noise and pretending to take notes. Somehow though, I managed to pass these classes and moved on to literature. These Spanish literature classes were where I really discovered the absurdity of language learning in university.

I remember on the second day, the teacher lambasted me for not doing the assignment, which I didn’t even know about because I didn’t understand her when she assigned it. Most of the students in these classes were native speakers, and participating vocally in discussions was a requirement. The discussions were on literature, a subject I discovered that I loathed. I really absolutely hated it. I still really wanted to learn Spanish, but learning it by reading these works that didn’t interest me at all was awful. And writing essays on these works was like torture. I honestly felt like a prisoner, not in a physical sense but in an intellectual one. Little did I know, there was a world of great Spanish material out there just waiting to be enjoyed, and I was stuck in this prison camp forced to read the most boring material imaginable, and bullshit my way through discussions on it without embarrassing myself in front of native speakers. Truly I had discovered the worst way to learn a language possible. Some of these classes were three hours long, by the way.

As for the actual effectiveness of these classes, well, I was not impressed. Of course my Spanish improved, but for the amount of effort I was putting into these classes, it wasn’t worth it at all. After barely passing these classes and graduating, I didn’t feel like I could say “I speak Spanish.” And the experience was so negative that I lost interest in language learning altogether for a few years.


My experience of course doesn’t speak for all, I’m sure there are some great language classes out there. But due my experience, I cannot recommend language classes as a method for someone who wants to achieve fluency in another language. Although it’s useful to have guided instruction, the stress of having to “perform” in front of other students and a teacher creates an anxiety-filled experience which I believe is counter-productive to learning. In addition, the lack of choice in what material to engage in makes it difficult to stay focused and decreases the will and motivation to learn. In my experience, engaging in the most interesting material you can find is a lot more effective. Obviously, if fluency is the goal, you will have to speak in front of others. But I believe it’s much better to focus on comprehension first, and save the speaking for later. Making mistakes is inevitable, but so much of the stress and anxiety of making these mistakes can be avoided if you just take some time to witness how the language is used before jumping into conversation practice.