Valuing Foreign Language Study
Aug 11, 2010 Catherine E Whitehead
Language study is on the rise in U.S. universities but not K-12 schools, partly due to neglect of electives. Reasons and techniques for language teaching.
In The Measure of Reality, Alfred W. Crosby [Cambridge University Press, 1997] argues that European development during the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance was the result of Europe's adopting modern methods of measurement and mapmaking. The spread of gunpowder from Asia, which paralleled the spread of the decimal system, may have also helped Europe. Similarly, multilingualism and technical savvy may be the skills most critical to national and individual progress in the information age.
Foreign Language Study in the U.S.: Current Trends
Foreign language competency is a part of the U.S.'s National Education Goals 2000. Language enrollment has increased at the university level according to the Modern Language Association's 2006 survey ("Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006" ), with a 13% overall increase from 2002 to 2006. Enrollment in Arabic and Chinese has mushroomed.
On the other hand, K-12 foreign language study in the U.S. is decreasing, according to a Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) National K-12 Foreign Language Survey (2008), which observed an overall decline between 1997 and 2008 in language study in public elementary and middle schools, with fewer offerings in Russian, German, and French at all levels, and fewer offerings in all languages – excepting Latin, Chinese, and Arabic – at the elementary level. Elementary programs today do however offer more "immersion-style" instruction in which the target language is used to teach other content areas.
Elementary schools also reported to CAL that language teaching had been negatively impacted by "No Child Left Behind." Teacher Melissa Tempel observes that students in urban schools tend to have fewer elective options than suburban peers. Further, when urban students score poorly on tests, interpretations of "No Child Left Behind" leave them no electives. According to "No Child Left Behind," resources in deficient schools must be reallocated to "those activities most likely to increase student achievement" in mandated basic skills tests. Departments of Education may interpret this as limiting instruction to math, English, science.
Benefits of Language Study
Researchers Olson and Brown (Spring, 1992) don't agree. They reported that students who "completed a foreign language course" scored higher on ACT English and math tests regardless of class rank. Of course it's possible that students studying foreign languages are simply more motivated. But foreign language study may encourage students to pay attention to word and sentence structure, or to cultural differences in expression and logic, and may help left brain development. With more foreign capital fueling America's economy, and with U.S. dependence on international business relations, foreign language study is increasingly a national priority.
Rethinking Electives to Increase Language Enrollment
One way to provide options for students who don't get electives is to allow them to replace their last year of English with a year of study in any subject they are interested in, including foreign languages, so long is that subject is either writing- or speaking-intensive. Students could even choose mathematics if it involved writing about mathematics or space. English teachers might then act as resource teachers to help other teachers facilitate writing and speaking in the content areas. This approach was adopted by Mount Holyoke College's "Speaking, arguing, and writing" program. The key is making electives challenging and relevant.
The Center for Applied Linguistics' Ingrid Pufahl (interviewed in the New York Times, "Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?") points out that Finnish students,who spend sixteen hours weekly studying foreign languages, and study content through the medium of the foreign language, "nevertheless top the charts in international math, science and reading achievement tests."
Teaching Languages: Ideas
Try for fun a really "exotic" language, such as Dinka, spoken along the Nile, or Navajo. Nebel's Dinka grammar is good. A site with Navajo lessons is gomyson.com. Content-based and literature- or art-based language instruction are increasingly popular. In content-based instruction, students use their second language to learn math, sciences, social sciences, and more. Habla.org is an organization committed to arts-based language instruction.
Role playing in a foreign language is a traditional favorite. Another option is games which require students to cooperate in the foreign language. Teachers might try pairing students with "language buddies" – who speak a different primary language – and organize "jigsaw-style" competitions. In these jigsaws, students join first with classmates who share their language skills to develop word games or grammar activities and discuss culture, and then work with their language buddy[ies] to complete the activities, solve puzzles, translate games. Mary Lynn Redmond of Wake Forest University provides additional suggestions for teaching language to children in a Wake Forest news release.
Increasingly, it's considered acceptable to use the student's first language some to facilitate instruction. Of course communication in the second language should continue to be facilitated, and activity in the second language should increase over time.
Social Networks and Bilingualism
Faciliting multilingual social networks may be important, particularly for students who were born speaking a non-English language. Speakers – even second generation speakers – whose social networks include heritage language speakers seem more likely to maintain fluency in the heritage language. For students who enjoy electronic communication, the web can facilitate such social networks. Online social networks may also help students learn a second language.