What’s The Most Neglected Area in Language Education?

There are good teachers and bad teachers, good language courses and bad language courses and I’ve had experience with all of them. However, there is one thing that was missing in pretty much all language courses that I attended: an adequate treatment of the language used in common everyday situations.

How is that possible? Well, elementary level courses teach you the basics of language, including basic grammar and vocabulary, common expressions, greetings, etc… And this subject is treated relatively quickly and superficially. As soon as possible,  the topics become more abstract and there are many lessons in which students are asked to express their opinions on complex and advanced topics. This is especially true for higher level courses. So what’s wrong with this approach? Well, there is nothing wrong with engaging students in abstract and intellectual conversations in foreign language and having them write argumentative essays. This is actually a great thing and it helps them gain confidence and skills for using the language even on a very high level. But, the problem is that higher level courses, and even some elementary courses deal almost exclusively with relatively abstract topics and often neglect basic conversational language, leaving students unable to engage comfortably in the simplest possible, realistic, everyday conversation. It creates paradoxical situations in which students are perfectly comfortable discussing global warming, technological advances, politics or economy in a foreign language, yet they are unsure about how to reply to a simplest phrase such as “Thank you” and they have to think a bit before saying “You’re welcome”.

It’s understandable why the academic language and advanced topics are emphasized so much. The goal of language education is to prepare you for a job and to give you a strong general education, academic and critical thinking skills, and probably there is also the presumption that if you ever need real everyday language, or even “street language”, you’ll pick it up on your own, when you need it.

But the problem is that this can be a bit demotivating. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable and skilled in expressing themselves in simple situations, they might wrongly believe that their language is poor, even though it’s actually quite good, and the missing elements can easily be added without much time or effort. But they still need to be added somehow, be it spontaneously, by spending some time in a country where that language is spoken, or through language education, or self-education that would include these elements as well.

I am not saying that everyday language should be the only area studied in language classes. But I am arguing that it deserves its place, along with more advanced and academic areas of use of language.

Now here are two examples in which Serbian students were learning Italian.

First is my personal case. I’ve always been a bit stressed when I had to give something to some of my Italian teachers. Why? Well, a long time ago I learned from an old textbook that when you are giving something to someone, you’re supposed to say: “Favorisca!” in formal situations and “Favorisci” in informal situations. That’s the same expression as “Here you are!” in English or “Izvoli / Izvolite” in Serbian. The problem is that I never actually heard an Italian say it! So I was uncomfortable using the expression that is possibly dated, or uncommon. This put me in awkward situations in which I would give something to a professor without saying anything, with a confused expression on my face, feeling uncomfortable knowing that I am being impolite.

Later I asked one of professors how to say “Here you are” in Italian. She replied immediately “Prego!”… I was confused again, because “Prego!” is also used when you want to say “You’re welcome” and in many other situations… For my Serbian brain, it was difficult to understand that they use the same expression for totally different things like “Here you are” and “You’re welcome”… it’s especially confusing when you look at the whole exchange:

Giver: Prego! (Here you are!)hereyouare

Receiver: Grazie! (Thanks)

Giver: Prego! (You’re welcome)

So, if a bit more attention was given to such simple language and real life conversations, maybe such a conversation would be less confusing (and less embarrassing) for non-native speakers.

Another anecdote is something that a professor told us once… There was a Serbian guy living in Italy who was speaking pretty much perfect Italian… but… Once he was in a concert, and it was extremely crowded, but he needed to go through the mass of people from the point A to the point B. So, while walking, he has been saying: “Solo un po’ “, a literal translation of Serbian expression “samo malo” = “just a little”, which is a shortened way to say “Please let me pass, move just a little” or “Please be patient just for a little time, while I am passing”. Of course, using “Solo un po’ ” put him in many embarrassing situations and everyone around him was confused and wondering what that guys wants, “just a little?!” “a little of what?” “Is he asking for something?”… So he avoided further embarrassment only when he learned that Italians actually say “Permesso!” in such situations, an expression with different meaning, but with the exactly same usage as its Serbian variant –  “Permesso” is a short way of saying “is it allowed” or “am I allowed to pass here”… Seems like Italians are a bit more polite than Serbs, they ask for permission to pass through the crowd, while we just ask people to move “just a bit” to make some space for us. 🙂

So, we need programs and textbooks that would include such use of language, and until we have them, maybe it would be wise to ask native speakers or consult websites like WordReference.com about the use of language in realistic situations.

Another paradox, closely related to this, is the fact that the difficult words are actually easier than the easy words. By “difficult words” I mean long words, often derived from Greek or Latin. They usually express abstract concepts and are very common in academic language. But they are actually easy, because they are very similar in most languages. Simply, the languages borrow them in similar ways and use them also in similar fashion (though there are some false friends, so pay attention to that).

On the other hand, “the easy words”, that describe common objects in our surroundings or some common verbs can be very tricky, because such words tend to be different in all languages. Additionally, they are less frequently used than “the difficult words”… How is that possible? Well, you can be perplexed about anything, you can contemplate anything, an inflammation can be caused by many different diseases, you can encourage anyone to do anything etc… So those “difficult” academic words often have very general use, and that’s why they are used so frequently. On the other hand, simple, everyday words, can sometimes have very specific uses and weeks or months can pass without you needing them, but when you actually do need them, it’s very hard to replace them with other words, and you can get in trouble trying to remember them!

How on Earth is called that thing for fastening shoes? Um… hm…damn… aaahh –  shoelace!

And what about beer factory? Beer factory? Beerery… nooo! Beer plant! Hell no!… aaah… it’s brewery!

No native speaker will feel very educated or accomplished for using words like shoelace or brewery… for natives those are the simplest possible words! Everyone knows them! But for foreign learners they are the trickiest words! So another suggestion that I would add would be to include more everyday vocabulary in programs of language courses, because without it the students will have to resort to long and clumsy paraphrases whenever they need to name a simple everyday object or a concept that’s maybe a bit less commonly used. Current practice of emphasizing only academic language makes students quite deficient in some very basic areas of use of language.

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One thought on “What’s The Most Neglected Area in Language Education?

  1. Great article! I totally agree with you. I spent two years learning academic German, but found myself completely lost when I actually needed to apply the language in everyday situations.

    Liked by 1 person

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