Why students struggle with foreign languages?
We often hear the cliché “All French people struggle with foreign languages,” but what is the reason for this? Is there really something about our language that prevents us from learning a new one? Or is it due to external factors?
According to a study conducted in 72 countries by Education First, the French ranked 29th, just after Romania and Bosnia, in their linguistic performance in English. Indeed, the language of Shakespeare is widespread around the world. Northern European countries, such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, are known for their exceptional level of English as well as their accent. But what is the reason for this? Indeed, there are scientific as well as practical reasons for these difficulties.
It must be said that teaching and the method of learning a language have much more influence than our mother tongue. Often it is said that it is easier for a French student to learn Spanish or Italian than English or German because these are Latin languages, and therefore the sound frequencies are similar, unlike in English where the sound differs significantly.
Take the example of Chinese, which is one of the most spoken languages in the world, but the intonation of each word consists of many nuances, which are not recognizable to a European ear. Unknown sounds are much more difficult to memorize when it comes to a foreign language.
From our birth until about the age of seven, a child’s brain functions differently from that of an adult.
Their brain, like a sponge, absorbs a tremendous amount of information at the same time. According to psychologist Mike Hughesman, it is not the quantity but the quality of stimulation for the child that is important. That is why it is important to start learning a foreign language at an early age, as the brain will be much more receptive.
Moreover, in France, we tend to focus on the grammar of a foreign language such as English, German, or Spanish inschool and thus neglect speaking. In France, a student spends on average less than 6 minutes per year speaking English (according to Marie Salaün, Professor of Education Sciences at the University of Nantes) while in Scandinavian countries, more time is devoted to this learning and from a very early age. 80 to 90% of the population speaks English fluently in Scandinavian countries whereas in France, 1 out of 5 French people speaks it fluently.
This is due to the fact that Scandinavian children start learning a foreign language from the age of 3 but also because, unlike in France, there is no dubbing in their native language for the majority of foreign films and television series.
It must also be said that grammar is unique to each language and French grammar is very different from English or Chinese.
Despite these difficulties, there are methods that exist to make progress with students. Firstly, it is essential to define objectives at the beginning of the year, according to the level of each individual. Every student is different and this must be taken into account. In order to avoid stigmatizing those who have more difficulties, it would be wise to distribute them by level group. Speaking and working with someone of the same level will motivate the person and especially give them the desire to excel. When progress is made, reward them by highlighting their achievements and enroll them in a higher-level group. It is very important that students are motivated and involved in your course.
One learns a foreign language much better when speaking it. It is thus important to encourage speaking. There are several techniques that you can implement to encourage your students to speak.
For example, you can ask your students to explain their passion and ask others to raise their hand if the student makes a grammatical or syntactical mistake when speaking. Moreover, you can use fun applications once a week in your lessons. Do not hesitate also to use role-playing games such as asking students to place an order with a waiter at a restaurant, create their own lunch special, simulate a job interview or a language class then reverse roles.
Every student can succeed with training and perseverance. This will require patience because teaching and learning a foreign language will only bear fruit over time. Consistency, motivation, and reward are most important. If the student is aware of their personal progress, this can only motivate them to continue. In the end, the student will have all the tools they need to master the language and it will become a pleasure to practice it.