"I took 3 years of Spanish in high school and don't remember a thing."
I have a hunch that you have either said or heard someone say something along these lines before. As a person who has been teaching Spanish for close to 15 years, I hear such claims incessantly. So, why does world language learning and teaching have such a bad rap? Why is it so seemingly difficult to become fluent in a second language? And, most importantly, is feeling at ease communicating in a second language unachievable for most?
The answer is mainly two fold. First, years of grammar based teaching in schools have left language learners with the inability to communicate. Secondly, the keys to true fluency are full cultural "immersion" and long term language "maintenance".
Let's first take a look at why all those verb conjugations you studied in high school did not lead to you having even the simplest of conversations with native speakers. I began my language studies this way and even taught this way for many years, but it does not facilitate long-term language retention. World language students who study verb charts ad nauseam establish a great base for learning to communicate, but do not actually learn to converse through the process. I for one, had hundreds of random verbs, some vocabulary, and a few phrases floating around in my head not truly connecting with one another until I spent three months in Ecuador and was forced to use them all in collaboration to get my point across.
So, why not have students use all of these elements to communicate in the classroom? Well, luckily, this is where we are currently headed in many of the language classrooms of America. Not every language teacher out there is fully convinced they should shift their classroom emphasis from grammar focused to a communicative approach, but this notion has taken form, gathered a lot of steam, and is now even a requirement in many school districts.
For those of you who learned language from the grammar perspective, I would like to give a brief overview of how this new communicative approach works. Units are focused around themes, not grammatical topics. Two examples of appropriate themes would be: "When I was a child" or "My personal relationships". When students leave a unit, they are able to express their own experiences and feelings through writing and speaking after receiving a great deal of practice with both. Students are also given adequate opportunities to listen to native speakers and should leave a unit with the ability to interpret what is being said about its theme.
The research shows that this new approach leaves students with the capability to communicate much more proficiently in the language of study, but will it leave them fluent in that language? Well, it depends. If they stop taking the language after two or even five years, there is very little chance of them maintaining fluency. This was probably not the answer you wanted, but you must understand that language fluency requires years of practice and is a perishable skill. On the flipside, if your interest has been piqued in the classroom, you enjoy the progress you are making, you are intrigued by the culture discussed, or you just do not want to lose all you have gained, you have a good shot at becoming fluent.
Now, I will go into the second piece of language fluency. This component to your studies is absolutely necessary--you MUST experience immersion. Studying or working abroad after having gained a good base is what it truly takes if you want to become fluent in a language. From my own experiences abroad, I can assure you that there is no substitute for having to navigate your daily routine and maintain personal relationships in a language that is not your own. Students who take four to six years of language in a classroom setting find their proficiency level high enough that they can reach fluency in a matter of months abroad.
Real immersion means you have to stay away from other Americans as much as possible--even when your head feels like it might explode from all the thinking you have done to stay in second language mode. This is one of the most challenging aspects of true immersion, but if your goal is fluency, you must foster relationships with people who speak the language you are studying. I always strongly suggest doing a homestay to maximize the immersion experience. This is absolutely what helped me gain the most fluency abroad.
Now, imagine that you progressed through upper-level Spanish in high school, studied 3 additional semesters of Spanish in college, and you are just back from a semester in Madrid. What next? Maintenance is undoubtedly the answer because language is a perishable skill. It MUST be nurtured and preserved. You should seek out opportunities to practice, if not daily, at least weekly. I ended up marrying a Venezuelan man whose family does not speak English and hiring a Colombian nanny, but still find myself feeling rusty if I go a week without speaking much Spanish. People, it takes work, just like anything else.
I hope I have shown that second language fluency is not unattainable, but it is also not as easy as taking a few classes in high school. It takes years of valiant effort, consistency, and dedication. For me personally, it was worth the endeavor. It built a bridge to fascinating cultures, the love of my life, a career I love, and the ability to raise my children to be bilingual.
Looking to develop proficiency or even fluency in another language? Follow these guidelines:
1) Look for programs that focus on communication, not grammar.
2) Immerse yourself in the culture.
3) Stay away from Americans while abroad. I know this is hard--I like them too.
4) Maintain and nurture your language skills.