Letter to the editor: The rewards of foreign language learning

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(Courtesy Jesse William Archbold)

Daily Wildcat columnist Rhiannon Bauer is right, learning a second or third language is no easy prospect. As a subject, language occupies a unique zone that does introduce students to hard and fast rules and then sometimes seems to set those rules completely aside. This can lead to frustrating feelings with no readily apparent solutions in sight.

I would like to share a few of my own experiences as a graduate student, a recent graduate of the UA’s German studies program and a current graduate assistant teacher. I want to shed light on some of the rewards that can come of those frustrations as someone who has been on both sides of the second language classroom at the UA and someone who is learning a third language in a non-classroom setting.

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Foreign language learning is not an easy task because languages were not developed or codified to be learned. Teaching language is also a difficult pedagogical act because languages are fluid—they evolve and grow in their own directions and ways.

Consider the massive adaptations that many French language curricula will be making after the recent French spelling reform and the similar changes German instructors made after the language reform of 1996. As massive as those changes were, they had the benefit of being nationally recognized by the nations which use them. Other changes are quite subtle and take place over time and through generations.

The nature of second language acquisition makes it a difficult thing to teach and we, as second language instructors and academics, are constantly fine-tuning our craft throughout our careers. We, as academics, are increasingly interested in these frustrating parts of second language learning and are constantly examining our own methods. The communicative methods that dominate second language classrooms now are not perfect, and in our German department, we do augment it with recent research by introducing activities meant to increase cultural competence and help with inductive acquisition of new words. These methods and approaches are products of decades of work and study by an international body of scholars; they are by no means that body’s final product.

Some students may have reservations about taking courses that are instructed by graduate students, but they are fresh-minded and highly motivated individuals who were likely actually taught in the methods that they themselves are now teaching in. The stark memories of sitting in a classroom watching words fly over my head that I felt I may never understand are fresh in my mind, especially considering how lost I feel when I try to practice Spanish with friends and colleagues who speak it. This seems to be a benefit to the students themselves as their instructor has more recently been in their shoes and, having put a great deal of time and effort into the language, understands more freshly what those hurdles look like.

Second language instructing graduate students are also not on their own in their instruction.

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Their performance is supported by their peers and their supervisors, who themselves are scholars and experts in the field of language learning and teaching. While some instructors may have different knowledge and expertise than others or may just have a style and disposition that is better for certain students and not a great fit for others, this is just the nature of the beast, regardless of the title of the person teaching the course.

I would encourage students who are experiencing these frustrations to look into applied linguistics and second language acquisition and teaching for themselves as interesting fields for their future studies. If you are concerned with the nature and frustrations of second language acquisition, then know that there is an international community of scholars who are working their entire careers to find ways in which to teach foreign language as effectively as possible. The job is insurmountable and we may never get there, but we need critical minds willing to ask tough questions!

I personally decided to go this route when I finished the German studies major here at the UA. I was amazed at the growth I saw in myself as a language learner. I felt that it was a mission of mine to make that feeling available to others. I was approached by professors in the German department here who said they thought I would be a good fit for the job.

Frustrations are part of learning a second language. Most people learn their first language when they are children, and the types of mistakes I made as a second language learner cut deep because they come right from feelings of misunderstanding from my own childhood. The feeling I have now, knowing that those frustrations have been bested and put to rest, is unparalleled. My advice to anyone struggling with frustrations in second language learning now is simply to embrace them. Nothing worth doing is ever easy.


Jesse William Archbold is a graduate assistant in the Department of German Studies teaching German 101. Archbold earned his bachelors in German Studies in May 2016 and was president of the undergraduate German Student Club. 



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