Benefits and Barriers to Foreign Language Study

There are tons of benefits to learning another language! And, students can reap benefits even if they do not become fluent in the new language. However, there are also very real barriers that lower the probability of students learning another language.

global globe


  1. Increase outcomes in all subject areas: The study of a second language can improve proficiency in the students’ native language. American students taking a foreign language show improvement in English grammar and vocabulary. Multiple studies show that students learning a foreign language show more significant gains on state assessments in various subject areas than their non language learning peers. These gains are present even when controlling for race, gender, and socioeconomic status. So encouraging language learning can have widespread positive benefits for student achievement outcomes which can spread into other subject areas, including math. 

Further Information:

2. Learning another language also has cognitive benefits: Studies show that students brainwho are learning another language are better at remembering lists or sequences, which could be attributed to how students learn grammar rules and structure in the TL. Language students are also more resistant to framing and conditioning techniques when watching things like television ads and political speeches in another language because they are more emotionally detached. Meaning that when students don’t hear and see media in their native language, they are less likely to let their emotions get in the way of deductive and critical thinking skills. Most importantly, second language acquisition can stave off the kinds of cognitive declines that can lead to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, even if the person isn’t fluent in the TL. It has also been shown that if bilinguals do contract dementia and Alzheimer’s that it’s later in life than their monolingual peers. 

Further Information on Cognitive Benefits:

3. Understand the literature, music, and digital media of a language in its original form: Often the nuance, style, and tone of a song, a book, or a film gets lost in translation. There are cultucd-1ral references and elements of many languages that can’t be translated, which is something I didn’t really appreciate until I started learning Japanese. For example, I learned to pay attention to names in Japanese media including TV shows, movies, and manga (comics), because they can carry symbolic meaning. In fact, it’s very common for actors/characters within the aforementioned mediums to ask
someone for the Kanji (Chinese characters) used in their names. For example, in the animated movie “Wolf Children” the mother names her children “Ame” and “Yuki”. A person seeing the childrens’ names in the Roman alphabet misses the fact that the mother used the characters for Rain (雨; Ame) and Snow (  雪; Yuki). And if you miss that reference you’ll miss the subsequent metaphors and symbolism weaved throughout the rest of the movie connecting the events of the story to the characters names. Thus being able to listen, read or watch something in the TL enables the consumer to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of it. 

4. Increase Global Awareness and Understanding: Learning another language facilitates cross-cultural understanding and exposes students to diverse perspectives. Foreign language learning can also make students examine and question their own beliefs and assumptions. For instance, in the U.S. we don’t learn too much about East Asia except within the context of WWII and the Korean War. Because of that, the majority of students and Americans in general, don’t question the assumption that Japan has a completely homogeneous population. A sizable part of the Japanese population has mixed ancestry. People also don’t realize that the islands of Hokkaido and Okinawa have indigenous populations. The Ainu are the indigenous indian people that inhabited Hokkaido and the Okinawans had their own kingdom, before Japan acquired them. Okinawans and people with Ainu ancestry still cook traditional foods and celebrate their own traditions to this day. 


lack of money

  1. Opportunity (i.e. funding, location, and qualified teachers): Today, less than 1% of Americans can speak the language they studied in a U.S. classroom. That statistic is even more troublesome when you realize that in 2008 about 93% of American high schools had foreign language programs. Unfortunately, when state and government officials are deciding what to cut from the budget, foreign language programs are often a victim. According to a 2008 survey from the Department of Education, only 15% of public elementary schools offered language programs, which is down 24% from the previous decade. And if you live in a rural or urban area you’re 3 times less likely to have foreign language programs than private schools. Then there is a lack of qualified, engaging, bilingual teachers. The schools that are capable of expanding or improving their language programs can’t because the the pool of teachers is so small. It’s hard to have more qualified, bilingual teachers when most students don’t become competent in the language they studied in school to then later go into the teaching profession. 

Further Information: 

  1. time for change picInefficiency: One big problem contributing to the U.S.’s foreign language deficit is inefficiency. The current structure of the classroom forces teachers to spend the large majority of class time on rote drilling, grammar and vocabulary practice instead of the authentic communication practice necessary to become competent in the TL. Of course students need a good foundation of vocabulary and grammar to build on, but what if we could cut or eliminate the time spent on drilling in the classroom so that we could spend more time on reading, writing, listening, and speaking in the TL? Three language teachers got together and pondered this problem last year. They came up with the web application tool, Classtracks. Our first goal is to tackle the issue of vocabulary practice in class. With ClassTracks teachers can assign vocabulary and assessments for homework, instead of taking up precious class time. We’ve made our tool customizable, adaptable, and personalized; additionally, we give both the student and teacher rich data to track progress. We have started our beta launch and would love feedback or suggestions. 

How To Use Digital Storybooks for CI in a Flipped Classroom

If you’re like me, you absolutely hate collecting, grading, and returning paper homework. Studies have shown that the way we usually use homework (ie assign some review exercise, check for completion, and move on) doesn’t even contribute to student learning at all. But, instead of scrapping homework all together, I see a lot of potential in the ‘flipped classroom’ model for world language classrooms. I did a bit of flipping in my class. It wasn’t every night, but at least a few times per unit I would assign online homework, partly because it proved to be a great way to engage students and partly because I believe in teaching computer literacy as well as language. This post includes instructions for creating your own flipped classroom homework assignments for a TPRS or CI approach using storybooks and Google Forms, as well as a complete assignment and all supporting materials.

If you are focusing on Comprehensible Input, you  want to have meaningful listening, reading, or writing activities for homework. I love using story books because the images help with comprehension the way my body language would help in class. There are lots of tools online for making cartoons and illustrated stories. My favorite tool, because it’s easy to use and looks great, is Click on the image below to see a story book I used as part of a homework assignment for my middle school Spanish I class:

La Historia De Roy

Storybird has beautiful free artwork that you can easily drag and drop to create professional-looking picture books. This 9-page story took me about 30 minutes to create. There are some limitations: for example, I couldn’t find a way to import custom art and I don’t think it’s possible to use more than one picture per page. But, because of those limitations, you won’t waste time trying to align or resize pictures so they fit exactly right: it’s all done for you as soon as you choose the image you want to use!

I assigned the story above as homework during our 3rd unit (early November) with comprehension questions. My students loved it and, even though some struggled to get online to complete it (I taught at a 100% Title 1 school), they were all able to complete it before the deadline. I did have to accommodate some students during lunch periods and immediately after school. I even had some students use Storybird to make their own stories for extra credit. You are, of course, welcome to use and/or adapt my story. But, I think once you’ve tried it, you’ll want to create your own.

And, since students already needed to be online to read the story, I went ahead and nixed paper altogether for this assignment. I used Google Forms to create a questionnaire with comprehension questions and assigned it to my students. Here’s a screen shot of the questionnaire:

Student Questionnaire for Roy Homework

This simple form has a few different question types and even a space for a longer response. Here is a link to the actual questionnaire that students saw and responded to (and a link to the original editable document so that you can make your own copy). And, because I have a lot of students with IEPs, I made a modified version of the questionnaire (and the editable doc for the modified questionnaire).

NB: Do not use these URLs with your students! If you do, I and the rest of the word will be able to see their responses. Instead, go to the editable version of the form and click on “file” and then “make a copy.” This will allow you to make your own, private version of the doc and share it with your students. If you need help using Google Apps, check out this simple article).

The great thing about using Google Forms is that I get all the students’ responses in one spreadsheet so I can grade it super quickly. (click the image below to enlarge)

Responses in Google Forms

To be honest, this homework assignment took me a bit longer to create than I would have liked (almost an hour when you add it all together). But, the extra time invested paid off because the grading went so much more quickly when everything was at a glance. If my school had Google Classroom it would have been even easier (I wish)! It also saved me a trip to the copier. Not to mention that my students had a lot more fun with this than other assignments and way more of them completed it on time than usual.

Please let me know what you think about this assignment in the comments. And, if you have your used Storybird or any other tool to make CI stories for homework, I’d love to see them!

How the “Testing Effect” helped my students succeed

When I was in my first year of teaching middle school Spanish I struggled with remediating vocabulary. I had a rule that any student who scored below a 60% on a weekly vocabulary quiz had to come to coach class to review the material and retake the quiz. I would give them as much time as they thought they needed, then allow them to try the quiz again. Yet, the results the second time were often worse than the first.

Cuerpo Humano

Body parts study guide. By having the definitions so readily available, I accidentally made it harder for students to take advantage of the “testing effect.”

In December of that first year, one of my students taught me how to fix this problem.
She typically did fine in my class, but had failed a vocabulary quiz on the parts of the body and came to coach class to retake it. She spent 15 minutes reading over our guided notes: a picture of a girl with 12 body parts labeled in Spanish. She had gotten 7 correct on the original quiz, so she only needed to learn 5 more. After about 15 minutes I asked if she felt ready to try the quiz again. With a worried expression on her face she shook her head and said she didn’t know any more words than she did before. In fact, she might know fewer words now because they were all getting mixed up. At that point (I’m embarrassed to say it took until December), I asked her how she was studying. She told me that she was just reading the words and trying to remember them. I hadn’t taken any education classes yet specifically on vocabulary strategies (I have since then and it was very helpful!), so I just used common sense to figure out that the problem was most likely the fact that she wasn’t actively quizzing herself. So, I gave her a blank copy of the quiz and asked her to label all the body parts she definitely knew. Next, I asked her to try one of the body parts she felt less confident about. She wrote her best guess, then I had her check her answer and make a correction. After she had completed the whole paper, we tried again. This time she got more words right away and we repeated the process with her guesses. After helping her ‘quiz’ herself for about 10 minutes, I gave her the real quiz – she got a 100%. In fact, the next week she got 100% again. She finished my class with an A, the best grade she had ever gotten in a language class.

What was the point of this story? I had used every kind of presentation method I could think of to address every possible learning modality (visual aids, graphic organizers, mnemonics, Total Physical Response (TPR), games, realia, stories, you name it I tried it) and yet my students were still struggling with vocabulary. It might just sound like my students needed more reps: trust me when I say they had PLENTY of reps. In fact the second student had probably practiced dozens of reps during those first 15 minutes and yet she knew FEWER words than before she started. Why is that? It has to do with something called the “testing effect,” the theory that people recall things better when they have to try to produce them instead of just ‘studying’ them. It turns out that attempting to retrieve a memory (in this case a Spanish word) has a much stronger effect on long-term retention of the memory than even prolonged periods of study. This holds true even if the retrieved memory is incorrect (i.e. if the student mixes up pie and pierna she is still learning their meanings more effectively than if she had read the words and their meanings several times correctly). Of course, if the retrieved memory is correct, the effect is further enhanced. So, for my students taking the quiz was even more important for long term retention than the time they spent studying!


Interactive Word Wall

So, how did I apply this in my classroom? Well, for one, if a student came to retake a quiz during coach class, I insisted that they take practice quizzes before the graded retake. It helped a lot. In class, I spent more time on retrieval practice than I had before. That helped a lot too. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing practice quizzes in class, because it’s boring and not communicative. But, I found other ways to help my students practice active retrieval. For example, after briefly introducing a new vocabulary list and the TPR motions for each word, I would have students close their eyes and try to do the motion for each word as I called it out. After every student attempted a motion, I would correct as needed – but by having them close their eyes and act it out, I was forcing them to attempt to retrieve the information themselves first. We played vocabulary games. I even started adding random slides to my lesson with some pictures of words we were learning or needed reviewing and then called on random students to identify the word in Spanish. It worked great! My students did much better during the spring semester than they had in the fall, and by the end of the year they were all able to ROCK our city-wide final exam.

But, all that retrieval practice took a ton of time out of my lesson – time I would have preferred to spend engaging my students in interpersonal and presentational communication. What if there were a way for students to study using active recall more efficiently? What if, instead of calling on random students, every student had an opportunity to practice at the same time? That’s why we decided to build ClassTracks, an online tool for vocabulary practice that allows teachers to upload their vocabulary list and then helps students study using research-based techniques. It’s free to try at We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback! email us at