Limitations: Language Learning in the Foreign Language Classroom

Most American high schools encourage only 2 years of foreign language study, which generally allows little time for anything except basic vocabulary acquisition.  According to Krashen and Terrell (1983), very few students are able to work their way through these 2 year grammar courses and therefore never put themselves into the communicative situations necessary to acquire the competence for which they have been striving.  In other words, learning in the foreign language rarely happens unless conversation is taking place.  

The obvious result of this structure is that most students can rarely achieve basic conversational competence upon graduation (Brown, 1997).  Liskin-Gasparro (1984) reported that although level 1 and level 2 language students vary considerably in their ability to communicate orally, none of the students tested reached level 1, or “survival proficiency”, on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale (ILR scale).  The ILR scale was created as a result of the adaptation of the Foreign Service Institute scale in order to allow greater latitude and precision when describing lower levels of proficiency in a foreign language (Omaggio-Hadley, 1993).  Asher (1982) reported studies where standardized tests measuring second language proficiency of students completing a two year foreign language program were typically less than satisfactory.  According to Asher, less than 5% of students studying a foreign language are able to endure the stressful nature of formal school training to continue studying the language more than two years.  

Research has shown that it typically takes 720 hours of intensive study at the Foreign Service Institute for an adult with high aptitude to become proficient in a foreign language (Omaggio-Hadley, 1993).  According to Brown (1997), it takes thousands of contact hours in Spanish or French, and four to five times that much time in languages such as Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, or Arabic for a person to achieve the ability to function beyond the tourist level in a foreign language.  Therefore, we cannot expect high school students to reach the same superior level of proficiency in a foreign language after they have spent only two years, or about 200 to 250 contact hours studying the second language in a regular classroom setting. 

The misconception is that beginning language study at an earlier age facilitates language acquisition. The most difficult learning task for children and adults alike may be the attempt to acquire second language proficiency in school environments (Asher, 1982).  It is simply not true that young children learn a new language more easily and quickly than adults because the many variables that are directly involved in the process of learning a language such as specific situations, input, interactions and most importantly, the amount of time invested in language learning in a quality program make language learning hard work for both groups. 

However, foreign language teachers can try to assist the learning of their students--no matter how old their students are and even in two year programs by creating a brain-compatible learning environment where a combination of many different teaching methods are utilized, more conversational activities occur, communicative abilities in the second language improve, and student motivation for continued language study is fostered.  A brain-compatible classroom provides more learning opportunities for students, ultimately effecting skill development as well as motivation for future language study. See the Research section for specifics.