Why do we learn foreign languages by writing?


On my first day of French class in seventh grade, I learned a simple exchange: “Bonjour, ca va? Oui, ca va bien.” I have used this exchange countless times while I have been in France. So why was the rest of my seventh grade language class based around a textbook? Having spent about two and a half months learning to live in a community that speaks a language foreign to me, I believe the way language is taught in school needs to be reevaluated. I think I might even be better at writing in French had I learned to speak it first.

For all the time I have spent conversing in French in a classroom, I have spent more hours reading and memorizing words on paper. But all languages, at least all natural languages, are spoken before they are written. Native speakers are called “speakers” because they learn to speak their language before they learn to write it. As an auditory learner, the words I learn on paper never seem to stick.

My French skills have improved the most thanks to the conversations I have with my host-family. At the dinner table, I can listen closely and employ turns of phrase that my host parents use. My four-year-old host-sister and I are going through a similar process: we listen, we learn and we practice. It is the natural way to learn a language. It seems that only now, after eight years of study, I actually understand the foundation of how French is used.

There are many problems with the way I was taught French. First was the reliance on a textbook—an instrument that could not teach me how to hear the words in my head and remember them as speech. A second problem was conducting listening exercises with recordings. There was no means of interaction and, more importantly, I could not watch the speaker speak.

The other night, a French couple gave my friend and me a ride to a dance. Half of the way, we conversed in French; the other half in English. The woman was very considerate and turned in her seat to talk to us. I have found that I can understand at least twice as much of what people say in French if they are looking at me. I noticed that when we switched to English, the woman watched the mouths of my friend and me as closely as we had watched hers. Now I know one reason why those listening exercises were always lost on me.

I am sure most people can relate to the experience of getting back a foreign language paper covered top to bottom in red marks. No matter how much we read and memorize vocabulary words, they are never going to teach the rhythm and logic of a language’s construction. A professor here told me that students often write using French words but put them together in ways that only make sense if translated into English. To know French writing you must know French speech. To write fluently in a language it is first necessary to speak it.

Children live about two years before anyone expects them to say more than “mama.” It is another five to seven years before they firmly have a grasp on grammar. They spend that time listening, learning and practicing, but they focus on speaking long before becoming writers. Perhaps I, too, could have become fluent that quickly if I had spent my time studying the rhythm and the logic of French, rather than the exercises in a textbook.


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