Last year I wrote a post about language clubs at OU and why I think they can really help students become fluent in a foreign language. I still do think they can be an important supplement to foreign language learning, and this semester I joined both the German club and the Japanese club. But after spending seven weeks in Japan over the summer, I’ve been reminded of the limitations of clubs like these.
The main selling point of language clubs–that they provide a low-pressure environment where students can practice their foreign language skills with students of varying degrees of fluency–is also one of their greatest drawbacks. The reason is that pressure plays a huge role in forcing the brain to adapt to speaking and thinking in a foreign language.
While I was in Japan, our student “buddies,” professors, and program coordinators weren’t allowed to speak to us in English. Some of them only know a handful of English words anyway; some buddies had spent a year studying abroad in Australia or America and were far more coherent in English than most of us were in Japanese, but regardless, everyone stuck to Japanese. My high school study abroad program in Germany was organized the same way–my host father, a veterinarian, was perfectly fluent in English, but the whole family spoke to me in German except in a few instances when they defined a word for me in English.
I’m sure that I’ve said this many times before, but the pressure that comes from not being able to switch back into English is pure gold when it comes to learning a foreign language. It teaches you how to talk around the words you don’t know. It teaches you how to just keep talking comfortably and not let the pressure of being perfect get to you. It teaches you that you actually know how to say far more than you think you do. And as a bonus side effect, it teaches you kick-butt improv skills for games like Pictionary, Charades, and Time’s Up.
So, I’ve revised my opinion of language clubs to a certain degree. They’re great for practicing what you’ve already learned and for meeting study partners or other students learning the same language. But in order to really expand your fluency, to learn how to hold a long, comfortable conversation even if you don’t know all the vocabulary, you have to be in an environment where you can’t fall back to English as soon as you hit a stumbling block. Yes, it’s easier to throw an English word or phrase into the middle of a sentence (“kono hon wa omoshirokatta kedo, um, character development wa amari yokunakatta deshita“), but it also doesn’t help your fluency grow at all; instead, it teaches your brain that it’s okay to give up and default back to English whenever you can’t remember a foreign word.
I’m not sure if there is any feasible way to create a completely no-English environment on a college campus so that students can speak foreign languages, but that would, in my opinion, be the best way for students to gain fluency. Perhaps in the future, language clubs could help arrange meetings for students who would be willing to forgo all English for the day. I’d especially love to see longer activities on weekends, like going to a restaurant, a bookstore, the zoo, or an event, where the students only speak the foreign language with each other!