Anyone who attends a public high school in the United States is required to take at least one credit of foreign language education. For most, this language is Spanish. For years, teachers have used a vocabulary and grammar approach to Spanish learning, and have found that the older a student is, the less likely they are to catch on to this method of teaching. As you age, your brain becomes more and more hard-wired. That is, it thinks it has everything it needs, so it doesn’t want to learn anything new. This is why many schools have started teaching foreign language education as early as the first grade; six-year-olds are much more accustomed to acquiring new things than sixteen-year olds.
In addition to teaching Spanish and other foreign languages earlier, teachers and educators are also learning that the methods used in secondary language education aren’t actually the best approach to learning Spanish or any other language. Most lesson plans call for vocabulary building, memorization of words and their translations, and boring, repetitive, exercises and practices. However, the brain is not very fond of these methods, so learning a language can become strenuous and aggravating for someone who is struggling. If instead you were to learn Spanish by being immersed in the culture and taught by example and association, you might be surprised at how much faster you catch on.
To succeed in teaching Spanish to any person, regardless of age, learning by association is recommended. This means that instead of memorization, teachers and teaching software focus on using pictures, games, and other cultural experiences to help the student better comprehend what they’re learning. For example, if you make someone memorize a list of animals in Spanish, it might take weeks to learn them all. However, if you show them pictures of various animals, along with their Spanish names, the student is much more likely to catch on faster because their brain has a picture to associate with the words.
If you think about how children first learn to speak, you’ll understand why this teaching method works best. Learning through observation, repetition and by using actual examples is the best way for the human brain to learn new things. If you are teaching an older group of students, you especially want to be sure that you are using the right methods. Otherwise, you might not succeed at teaching them what they need to know because their brains aren’t accepting of the new information.
Ultimately, human nature has trained our brains to learn through example. Not until a child touches the stove or heater will they truly understand the meaning of the word “hot.” The same rings true for secondary language education; if you tell someone that a certain word means something, they might remember it for a second, but if you show them what a word means or stands for in a picture or through example, they will be much more likely to remember it in the long run.