Or, Why You Took 3 Years of Spanish and Still Can’t Say a Word

Or maybe it was French or German or Chinese (get in touch if you want to fix that) or Japanese. Whatever the language was, most people you will run into at Target will say the same thing. That thing is “I took x number of years of language y and and still can’t say a word.” I will use my completely non-psychic abilities to explain exactly why. Why is language learning in American high schools so difficult?

cartoon of dragon holding sign that says "hola"
We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming about Chinese to talk about Spanish. Particularly, learning Spanish as part of an American high school education

It’s All About Time on Task

First thing we need to look is exactly how long you have really been “learning.” You’re probably measuring the wrong thing. X number of years of study is just not that useful a metric. In a typical high school, you get 4-5 hours a week of class. For elementary school students, a language class might be 45 minutes a week. One of my former students was in the military and he attended the Defense Language Institute. He told me all they did for 8+ hours a day or more was study Arabic. See how X number of years can actually be wildly different amounts of time?

graphic of main post office in Madrid and soft serve ice cream
Which image best describes your summers as a teenager? If you’re like most people, it is probably the one on the right.

We haven’t even gotten to summers. Were you terrorizing the streets of Madrid as a teenager or working in the Dairy Queen like I did? One of those scenarios implies Spanish immersion all the waking hours of the day. The other only includes immersion in the soft serve refrigerator (soft serve comes in bags! They are very unwieldy).

Let’s Do Some Math

Back to the typical high school experience… If you get one hour per day of language class (more likely less) for 180 school days a year, that is 540 hours TOTAL in exposure to Spanish (or language y). If you were worried about getting into college and took four years of Spanish, that is still only 720 hours.

These Days, Who Has the Time?

Let’s look at someone who has learned a language really well. That person is a typical five year old. Five year olds are terrible at many things. They are often bad at eating food that is not beige. They dress like Tinkerbell in rehab. They have done one thing really well, though: learning a language. It also helps that five year olds don’t have jobs.

A five year old has been alive for 1,825 days, at least. Plus add in a leap year or two. They have been hearing their native language (and maybe another one or two) for all their waking hours. So that is at least 14 x 1,825= 25,550 hours! Wow! That is loads of time!

One More Thing…

Compare your measly 540 high school hours with that hypothetical five year old! It is starting to make sense why you are still watching Gran Hotel with the subtitles. They keyword here is input. A young child gets a lot of it (those 25,000+ hours of hearing language). A high school student gets very little (less than 1,000 hours.)

There is more to the story, however. This is just the beginning of exploring why you still don’t speak Spanish. Now you know, those three whole years, were not that much time for learning a language after all. It is little wonder that you are not proficient in another language.

drawing of angry bull
Don’t be angry like this bull! Now you know why spending three years in high school Spanish really was not enough to learn the language

Check out more information on language learning in the FAQ

Much research on second language learning is available (for free!) from Stephen Krashen, phD via his website.

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