Inspiring Foreign Language Learning

Claudia Dolan, DCD Middle School Spanish Teacher

If you studied a second language and now merely recall a few incongruent phrases the reality is that you’re in the majority. In 2015, The Atlantic cited that less than 1% of American adults who studied a second language are proficient in that language. Most Americans likely agree that in our multicultural world knowing a second language increases one's appreciation of other cultures, and improves hiring opportunities in myriad job fields. So why aren’t more Americans fluent in a second language? 

Richard Brecht from the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language explained in this article of The Atlantic: “It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”

The first week of Spanish class this fall, 8th grade students at DCD read and discussed Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton’s article, How Long Does It Take to Learn a New Language? Eaton’s article takes a typical 6th grade student with language instruction 4 hours/week in school and calculates this student attains approximately 96 hours per school year. At this pace, if that student continues through 12th grade, the student will achieve 576 hours of second language instruction in school. Eaton applied those numbers to the research findings that it requires 10,000 hours to become an expert, which Ericsson et al. (2007) published in the Harvard Business review and later Malcom Gladwell referenced in his book, Outliers. It’s important to note Gladwell’s disclaimer that expertise isn’t simply reached with lots of practice hours plus natural talent. The quality of the practice is also significant. As Ericsson attested, “deliberate practice”, which requires focused attention is essential.
I was raised in the U.S. in a bilingual home where Spanish was predominantly spoken, and for two months every summer, we lived with extended family members in Venezuela where I was born. In school, I spoke English and I begrudgingly studied French from 7th grade through 12th grade. I empathize with my students who sometimes perceive Spanish grammar rules as arbitrary and grimace at memorizing the conjugations of irregular verbs. However, as an educator preparing students to contribute and compete in our global society, I want them to reap the benefits afforded by knowing another language.
I feel compelled to inspire a new generation of learners that proves Richard Brecht and 99% of the adult population wrong. Discussing this notion of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice yielding proficiency wasn’t intended to dissuade my students from learning a second language or transfix their minds on that elusive number. But rather empower them to set realistic, measurable goals to advance toward the coveted goal of proficiency. As a class, we discussed maximizing learning outcomes with a combination of formal and informal classroom instruction, independent learning, and practice with other speakers. On a reflection that evening, one student wrote:
I will try to reach 10,000 hours of practice to get fluent in Spanish by practicing on Duolingo for 20 minutes every other day. I will practice with others by FaceTiming friends for 10 minutes every other week. I will read a Spanish book that I am familiar with once a week. Also, I will listen to Spanish music quietly while doing homework so it will be in the back of my mind.
Ingrained in DCD students is the value of being life-long learners. Proficiency in a second language is difficult, but attainable if also incorporated into experiences and thoughts outside of the classroom. After my 8th grade students graduate in June, it’s my hope that they integrate second language learning into their understanding of the DCD motto: Learning Is A Way Of Life.
© Copyright 2018 Dedham Country Day School. All Rights Reserved.