Learn Languages Like Musical Instruments, Not School Subjects

Concert Pianist

You know there’s a problem with the way we’re teaching languages in school when a person can take four years of Spanish in high school and still barely be able to speak a word of Spanish by the end. Unfortunately, a lot of people walk away after all that time spent, thinking that they’re just not good at languages.

Last week I wrote about what makes some people better than others at learning languages, but today I want to focus on this point in particular. For those who have put in several years of school learning with nothing to show for it, you don’t suck at languages. The problem is in the method – we’re going about the whole learning process wrong.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re in a high school biology class. You have a final coming in up in a few days or weeks or whatever, so depending on your study habits, you’ll probably start studying/cramming/memorizing, right up to the morning of the final. On that day, you’ll regurgitate all the facts you’ve memorized in the previous weeks onto a written test, turn it in, walk out of the room, and promptly forget everything you “learned” up to then, because honestly, unless you’re going to be a doctor, when are you ever going to use it again?

This is the basic format for all subjects taught and learned in school. We study and memorize, do some homework, and take periodic tests, usually with a big final at the end of the semester. In theory, it’s not terrible, but the problem is that we rely solely on this model for all of our learning.

I took piano lessons for several years when I was a kid. Each week, the teacher would come to my house, have me play the songs and lessons I had been practicing from the week before, show me what I did right and how to improve on the parts I was lacking in, then assign me new songs to work on. The whole lesson took no longer than about an hour. However, the real learning took place in the days between lessons, in my practice time. Learning the theory and technical points is important and serves its purpose, but if I want to become a good piano player, then most of my learning will take place in the time I’m using my skill.

Languages are best learned not as academic subjects but as skills. The theory (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) is important, but if you spend all your time memorizing facts, as if for a test, the way we do it in school, you won’t learn the language. You get out of it what you put in.

And there’s the crux of the issue. Language classes as they are usually taught in schools are designed to prepare you for a test, rather than to teach you a skill you can use. Unfortunately, the education system doesn’t appear to be in the throes of change, so if you want to actually want to learn the language you’re studying on school, you’ll need to take all that theory and put it into practice; watch movies, listen to podcasts, talk to people, etc.

Remember, language isn’t a set of facts to be memorized and regurgitated, but rather a skill to be practiced and sharpened.


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