Language learning via grammar and memorization is joyless, should go

Watching my roommate learn the Spanish past subjunctive from a Youtube video while preparing to do his online grammar homework made me angry. In my time as a student and conversation group leader in the Spanish and French departments, I have been frustrated with the current model of language learning. I went through a Spanish immersion program throughout elementary, middle and high school, and I am still not very helpful when my friends have questions. I have been asked how to form the “pretérito pluscuamperfecto” and had no idea where to start. My Spanish education is such that I can tell you when something “sounds right” or when it does not but not much else. My limited understanding of grammar aside, my Spanish is highly functional. I can understand and experience movies, music and culture using the Spanish language as a tool of communication, the same way I use English every day. Conjugating verbs or memorizing the distinction between “por” and “para” didn’t get me here: a love for living in Spanish did.

Learning language in a grammar and memorization based way (and watching my friends do so) has left me disappointed because I see that love of language evaporating in my community. When the focus of language learning becomes about memorizing lists of vocabulary or precisely reproducing conjugations and accent marks, it stops being about communicating with real people and experiencing the world through a new lens.

The language departments, like the rest of Calvin’s humanities, have had a rough couple of years — German, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese and Korean have all been cut in some form. My largest French class to date has had 15 students. Other than Spanish, the trajectory of world languages classes and programs at Calvin does not look promising. As someone who loves learning languages deeply, this breaks my heart. Connecting with people all over the world is so fulfilling for me personally, and I think it is an integral piece of Calvin’s global mission.

There are parts of Calvin’s language programs that are useful and enjoyable, and if we embraced those models of learning, the Department of World Languages community at Calvin would become much more vibrant. The language lessons that have stuck with me have given me some ideas as to how language learning could be better at Calvin and in higher education generally. More of our time learning languages should be like the higher-level conversation groups I have led and participated in, where I have played Headbandz and Guess Who in French and talked about my dream vacation in Spanish. If Kaffeestunde and Pause-café — informal conversation hangouts for students to come together and practice German and French — could run more often and potentially incorporate field trip afternoons to simply interact with one another outside of the English language, I think more casual learners would be interested in stopping by.

I love learning other languages, and I want other Calvin students to find joy in learning languages as well. In my view, it’s much more enjoyable to learn another language when that experience is geared towards communicating with other people. Just as important as learning the structure and vocabulary of a language is being able to connect to a relational and cultural identity through it. If Calvin’s language classes focused more on building relationships through a community of speakers than on testing grammatical accuracy, language learning at Calvin would be seen in a more positive light.