RTW Trip


Duolingo will replace US foreign language teachers

Elementary school in Granada, Spain. Wish I learned another language at school in the US

Duolingo will replace US foreign language teachers in the US. And those teachers deserve to be replaced. Correction: those teachers deserve to be fired, put on a rocket, and shot into the sun.

Foreign language class in the US looks like this:

The students show up for the new year, and struggle. The teacher scraps the lesson plan because the class is performing poorly. The teacher sticks with the basics for the entire year. At the end of the year, the teacher passes the class even though they didn’t get through nearly what they should have. The students enroll in the next level even though their knowledge is crap.

Repeat the above for 6 years, and you get my joke of a foreign language education. Every year we learned the absolute basics of the language and nothing else. Every year the teacher was somehow shocked that we knew nothing, but still passed everyone on to the next level.

Unlike US teachers, Duolingo doesn’t let you progress until you actually know the material. Shocking!

If I sound mad, it’s because I am

Alicia and I took a 4-day Spanish course in Buenos Aires. I learned more in that 4 days than I did in 6 years. In 20 hours of class, we covered more subject material than my schools did in 6 years. My classmates and I spent hundreds of hours for nothing.

Wait, it wasn’t for nothing. It was for thousands of dollars because I was in private high school and private college. That’s much worse.

Foreign language teachers in the US have wasted the time of generation after generation. It’s institutionalized failure. Teachers keep passing students instead of failing them because not having a second language isn’t a big detriment in the US. There’s no accountability. So generation after generation keeps failing their way through the system.

Language myths

Myth: “It’s a good thing Timmy learned [Medicine] when he was young, because that’s the best time to learn it!”

There’s no other subject out there that uses age as a crutch. Doctors don’t need to learn their profession when they’re young. Ditto airline pilots.

Computer programmers learn other languages far past childhood age. If you don’t think programming languages qualify, do me a favor and view the source of this webpage. Complicated stuff, isn’t it? Reading and understanding your average JavaScript function is a ton more complicated than saying “I will eat a cookie”. And yet, after 6 years of Spanish I can’t even say “I will eat a cookie”. We didn’t get that far.

Myth: “Martha wouldn’t have passed [History] without that immersion program.”

Kids learn math without immersion. They learn complicated algebra and calculus while the foreign language classes are struggling to say “I will eat a cookie”. See how stupid that is? Why do we continue to accept this?

People who have foreign language proficiency usually participate in immersion programs, often by studying abroad. Studies show that classrooms suck:

  • “The formal classroom students made no significant gains”
  • “The summer immersion students made significant oral gains…”
  • “The study abroad made significant gains, but less than the immersion”

If immersion is the only way, fine. Then don’t waste time with non-immersion classes. But I don’t think immersion is the only way. I think the classroom is broken.

Myth: Language is different/special

People learn new languages all the time! Listen to any professionals talk to each other and try to understand what they’re saying:

Programmer: “The data layer to the CMS threw an exception in a concurrent thread. It’s a race condition.”

Poker player: “I merged my range when I bet two-thirds pot with Irish position on a monotone board with top set.”

Do you know all of the above words? Yes.

Do you know what those sentences mean? Not even remotely. Just like I don’t know the language of your job.

My parents are a doctor and a nurse. I’ve been listening to them talk about the hospital and patients since I was a kid. I translate what my parents are saying to other people, even though everyone speaks English. Because professional jargon is a different language with its own rules, words, and syntax.

Let’s stop practicing failure

Throwing more money at a broken system isn’t the answer. My class sizes were never larger than 25 (usually ~20 in high school and ~15 in college). These schools cost $15K/year for high school and $40K/year for college. Money wasn’t the issue.

I’m OK with the performance of my other teachers. I’ve used algebra, calculus, statistics, and geometry over the years to solve problems. It’s not a memory issue since I can recall other information taught to me decades ago.

Today I had to take a proficiency test for the Spanish classes Alicia and I are taking. 50 questions. I filled out the first two and handed in the rest of the questions blank. My professors didn’t teach us infinitives, past participles, or future tenses in 6 years of Spanish. It was the same ser/estar/gustar verbs in the present tense, every year.

Depriving generations of education has to stop.

I think Duolingo, or something like it, could be a better way forward. Anything is better than what we have right now. Accountability would work as well, but schools haven’t been accountable so there’s no reason to think they’d start.

Duolingo effectiveness study: “The study estimated that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need between 26 and 49 hours (or 34 hours on average) to cover the material for the first college semester of Spanish.”

The study shows that an app on your smartphone is more effective than college. Oh, and it’s free. And it takes way less time.

So we should gather all the foreign language teachers in the US, put them on a rocket, and shoot them into the sun while we actually learn something using our phones.



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