Designing a Foreign-Language Course, Part 1

I’m starting on a project to think more concretely about what I believe an ideal foreign language course would look like. While all of these thoughts are based on my own experience learning Spanish and may not work as well for people with different brain organizations, I thought it’d be worth at least writing down how I’d use modern technology to design a foreign language course that would be most effective for me, in case that might inspire other folks to think harder about how we can construct adult language-learning courses more effectively.

In this blog post I’m going to lay out some of my philosophy about both education in general and language acquisition in particular which I’ll then use as a springboard for future posts where I cover both what technology tools I think would be most useful for a foreign-language course as well how I’d structure the curriculum.

If this is a topic you’re passionate about or that you’d be interested in collaborating on, please reach out.

The Goal is Thinking in the Target Language

As quickly as possible, we want students to be able to think in the target language. Once students can think in the target language, practicing the language becomes much simpler (just think!) and both passive comprehension (listening, reading) and active production of the language (writing, speaking) become much easier.

To get students to think in the target language, they must have the vocabulary to describe their lives in a way that’s meaningful and useful to them.

The structure of the course should emphasize describing phenomena in the student’s world, starting with the most simple and basic and then increasing in complexity over time, going from concrete description to reflecting on the past to planning for the future to constructing hypotheticals.

Emphasize Cooking Techniques and Ingredients

Human language acquisition consists of two components which are language patterns and vocabulary. I like to think of these metaphorically as Cooking Techniques and Ingredients.

Ingredients are simple: these are vocabulary words and phrases that can be used to describe the world and your thoughts. The more ingredients you know, the more things you can cook!

Cooking techniques: these are the structures you need to turn ingredients into food, to turn vocabulary words into communications.

If you know what it means to chop a carrot, you can figure out what it means to chop an onion or lettuce or a steak.

Similarly with language — if you know the pattern “the pen is on the table” and you know that you can sub in “the pen” for any other object (the bottle, the lamp, the wallet) and “on” for any other preposition (above, below, between, beside) and “the table” for any other noun (the chair, the desk, the bed) then you can construct a large variety of different phrases.

Rather than focusing on learning the grammar rules (this is how you conjugate “estar”, this is the difference between “ser” and “estar”), we will focus on memorizing the patterns in real-world use. Once the students have memorized the patterns, we mayreview the rules of the grammar; the rules of the grammar are always secondary to memorizing and using the patterns.

Play the Game

I was recently introduced to the book Making Learning Whole by David Perkins which seems to nicely express a number of ideas I’ve had about education but much more clearly and concisely than I had formulated myself.

One over-arching idea of the text is that for learning to happen, students need to have enough context about what they’re learning to see how it both connects to other things they’re learning and will ladder-up into a skill that they are excited to have. Perkins uses the game of baseball as an example, where knowing about the game, and playing the game occasionally, helps to motivate batting practice.

I want to get language students writing and speaking using the cooking techniques and ingredients above as quickly as possible. We want students to feel the satisfaction of being able to describe their world in their own terms so that they are motivated to increase their armory of cooking techniques and ingredients (which they acquire through the boring but important task of memorization).

But Plan an Abbreviated Version

Also mentioned in Perkins book is the idea of playing a smaller version of the game (maybe it’s backyard whiffle ball) instead of the full thing if the students are not yet ready.

This is critical for language acquisition and is a place where most language programs fall short.

Our course will emphasize the quick production of the target language with errors. We want students to practice producing the language using the techniques and vocabulary they have acquired to the best of their ability, and we will not get stuck on tweaking errors in phrasing that they do not know yet.

We will not cover the difference between “ser and estar” until relatively late in the course, and we will not worry much about the incorrect use of prepositions or conjugations (all things many language courses today spend a lot of time on). The correct use of indirect objects is hardly necessary and can be put off for quite a while (though of course they’ll start appearing very early on in the course via the “techniques”)

Memorize All the Things with Spaced Repetition

Our course will use spaced repetition to efficiently learn the techniques and ingredients described above. We will do this aggressively, much more aggressively than other language courses.

Some people complain about this type of rote memorization as being mindless, but when it comes to language acquisition there just really is no better technique. What starts out as memorization becomes understanding as the student converts memorized sentences into their constituent parts of techniques and ingredients which can then be re-assembled to express novel ideas.

This technique of memorizing, breaking down, and remixing is at the heart of this language-learning philosophy.

In upcoming blog posts I’ll lay out more examples of how I want this to work with examples of the different types of lessons, the types of digital tools we’ll need to make it happen, and a proposed curriculum.

If this is a topic you’re passionate about, please drop me a note!

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By michael