What Do Students Want Out of Today’s Language Class?

A new practitioner brief highlights high schoolers’ preferences in the world language classroom

What motivates students to study languages? How do our students prefer to learn languages? Does school actually “get in the way” of language learning?

High school student asking doubt to professor while walking in hallway. Mature man professor answering to girl in university campus. High school lecturer talking to schoolgirl at the end of the lesson while walking in the corridor.

To explore the learner’s perspec­tive on the current state of high school language learning, the National Council of State Super­visors for Languages (NCSSFL) organized a diverse group of students from across the country to share their insights on language learning.

The group consisted of six high school students from around the country. The students’ observations about their experiences are presented and discussed in a new Practitioner Brief published by the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Their stories are compelling not only on a personal level, but also for the picture of language learning that they painted for the audience that day. We were haunted by stories of the denial of opportunity because of class scheduling conflicts and troubled by stories of frustration with obstacles encountered, but we also heard stories of hope and opportunity.

The practitioner brief is divided into five overarching themes, from motivation to recommended activities. Below are excerpts from Theme 1, “Students’ motivations” and Theme 2, “Focusing on learning speaking skills.”

Theme 1: Students’ motivations for learning languages

What motivates students to study languages? Although language teachers and school adminis­trators often promote the career value of learning a language as a key reason for enrolling, the six students on the panel described a desire for connections as their principal motivating factor.

In one case, a student had connections with many native speaker classmates. At a small boarding school in the Northeast, George appreciated the sizeable number of Chinese students at his school.

That’s what keeps me wanting to learn the language—having these kids around that speak Chinese as their native language. That inspires me to keep going and learn more about the culture and not just the language.

Ella was interested in getting in touch with her roots.

I’m half Mexican, so getting in touch with that culture and having a sense of belonging with my ancestors was my motivation [for learning Spanish]. The language wasn’t necessarily passed down through my family because they did move to the States, and the language got lost, so getting back in touch with it was important. Also, there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in Arizona, and I like being able to connect with them and help them because not all of them speak English.

Another motivation for language learning that Karla mentioned was the engaging polyglot YouTuber known as Ikenna, who is learning German, Spanish, and Japanese on his own by connecting with native speaker tutors online.

I want to get to that level. He really inspired me to learn German and Spanish! He makes videos of things like “learning as much Spanish as I can in 26 days” or “rap songs in German” that I really enjoy. And that introduces you to the culture and language and you can pick up words from his videos.

Most of the students described a teacher or teachers along the way who sparked and helped maintain their interest in the language. George stated, “My teacher does a really good job” of teaching about cultural topics and focusing the discussions on topics of interest to students. “Specifically, I liked when we discussed what sports we’re interested in, because our school is a very athletic-oriented school.”

Theme 3: Increasing interactive activities, focusing on cultural topics and interpersonal connections

Most of the students preferred authentic activities—not worksheets—to promote conversational skills, including presentations, short conversations, and real-life scenarios. Madison thought the best way to learn a language was to do activities that are more realistic,

…things you’re going to need and want to talk about, and to do it in a manner that’s not just a worksheet. [Teachers should encourage students] to do presentations, have conversations, and act out something. It’s almost like going back to kindergarten! If you go back to kindergarten, that’s how they learn.

All students would like more interaction with native speakers, whether in person or virtually, to improve their fluency. Ella commented:

Personally, the biggest thing for me that’s aiding my progression in Spanish is definitely just being immersed in the culture. Before [COVID], I would go to the Spanish church and go to Spanish Mass and spend time with Spanish speakers. Because hearing the pronunciation helps you phonetically and finding someone that you can speak to and feel comfortable with is helpful. Oftentimes, our pronunciation isn’t perfect and so it can hold us back a lot, so finding that person to connect with and help you and guide you is really beneficial.

Karla also benefited from in-person interactions with native speakers—in her case, on field trips with her Korean class to the H Mart, an Asian supermarket.

I believe that field trips are really helpful [to encourage short conversations with people from the culture you’re studying]. It’s going there and talking to the cashiers or saying in Korean, “Can you please tell me where this is?” Starting up a conversation with someone helps immensely when it comes to going to another culture and being able to speak to them.

This article includes excerpts from “Student Voices: High Schoolers’ Insights into World Language Learning” by Tom Welch and Nancy Rhodes. You may download the full version online at CAL.org.

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