The Execution of Foreign Language Study: Its benefits are striking, but only if we stay enrolled

JESSE STESHENKO / AGGIE

Personal experience reveals passions and exasperation in Russian courses

There aren’t a lot of folks who can say their educational lives changed after they visited a Wikipedia page. I can say without a doubt that mine has. The story goes like this: I was 17 years old, and one day I was bored. I hopped on the computer, one thing led to another and a blue hyperlink bearing the words “Trans-Siberian Railwaypulsed before my eyes. I opened the link. The next thing I knew, Russian nesting dolls and statues of Lenin’s head ballooned on the screen. It was my first real exposure to Russia and its wonderful language.

I enrolled in a Russian class at the local community college. The professor was originally from Russia but had immigrated to the United States to escape persecution for being Jewish. This fact alone was intriguing. Russia seemed to mirror my own country with its mixed record on human rights and a history of discrimination. Yet at the same time, its authoritarian streak and blend of Eurasian culture appeared so different from the U.S.

I couldn’t quite grasp whether Russia and the United States were lukewarm siblings or strangers on the street. I needed to understand more, so learning Russian made perfect sense. I finished the community college class and decided I liked it — white tank tops and tracksuits were in my future after all. After enrolling at UC Davis, I scrolled through the course listings for a Russian class. Check.

Many readers know just how mind-numbing learning another language is — especially as a monolingual adult. Statistically, committing to learn another language is difficult. In a study of 150 language-learners using software as a self-studying method, only one person actually completed the 200-hour program. Most dropped out after 10 hours of study.

The data from actual college classrooms — as opposed to self-study groups — reveals a similar, if less potent, dropout rate in foreign language courses. A study using enrollment figures from 2006 shows how only 20 percent of foreign language students take upper-division courses in their chosen language. Most students fail to advance more than one or two years.   

This isn’t hard to imagine. Data from 2015 published by the Modern Language Association, for example, revealed an 18 percent enrollment decrease in Russian courses since 2009, the third-largest drop seen in language courses besides Ancient Greek and Modern Hebrew.

Year after year, I witness similar attrition rates in my own college Russian courses. What began as a waitlist-only introductory class my first year quickly became a smattering of Russophiles and begrudged upperclassmen that could be counted on two hands. Our numbers only dwindled, so my second year courses consisted of a handful of “originals” and a few heritage speakers looking for an easy A.

People like the idea of learning another language. It’s a subject of fascination for those who aren’t multilingual and a mixture of pride and nonchalance for those who are. The benefits are plenty, and they include anything from conversational flexibility with people around the world, a heightened understanding of our own native tongue and better memory and multitasking skills.

There’s just one problem — language learning is tough to do and easy to quit, as shown by the epidemic of dropouts. Many tenable solutions are out there, like improving our teaching methods. We could bypass the hurdles of adult language acquisition and start the process in elementary school, like much of Europe does. But for now, the pitfalls and rewards of studying a foreign language are here to stay — one click at a time.

 

Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

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