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Draft of Foreign-Language Standards Released

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Parlez vous Fran‡ais? Habla Espa¤ol? Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Students in the nation's schools may get credit for speaking a second language, but that feat is just the foundation on which national foreign-language standards are being developed.

By the time students graduate from high school, they should be familiar with the cultures of their second language's native speakers, be able to link language study with other disciplines, and better understand their native tongue and culture, a draft of the academic standards for foreign languages suggests.

Most of all, students should be able to communicate in a language other than English--not only by conjugating verbs and spewing vocabulary, but by interacting with others, the standards-setters say.

Issues Up in the Air

The draft, which was released late last year, offers the first look at what foreign-language educators believe students should know and be able to do at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

The federally funded document is one of the few remaining voluntary national-standards projects to be rolled out for public review. It was developed by the National Standards in Foreign Language Education, a collaboration of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the American associations of teachers of French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Project leaders hope to release the final document in November.

Meanwhile, the developers are grappling with such difficult issues as the numerous grades at which students begin foreign-language instruction, students whose second language is English, and the notion held by many that the study of foreign language should be an elective course.

To counter that proclivity, the document stresses that the study of foreign language is essential for the health and vitality of the United States.

The American culture traditionally has been one of "green lawns flowing into those of our neighbors and of front porch swings from which to pass the time of day with friends who stroll by," the authors of the standards write. "But now it is the whole world that is strolling by."

"The neighborhood language of the front porch swing will no longer serve to transact world business and to make new friends. We must acquire the ability now to understand and be understood in the language of the worldwide neighborhood," the authors write.

The drafters also point out that research indicates that foreign-language instruction tends to help students in other disciplines.

For Young and Old

The document is made up of nine standards that fall under five goals: communicate in languages other than English, learn about other cultures, acquire information about and connection with other disciplines, develop insights into one's own language and culture, and participate in multilingual communities and a global society.

The goals and standards are the same for each grade level, but sample benchmarks tasks and learning scenarios vary.

Under one standard, for example, students would be expected to "use the language both within and beyond the school setting with representatives of the target cultures."

To gauge their abilities, teachers might ask elementary school students to get in touch with peers who speak a foreign language and exchange information about family or school events via letters or electronic mail. Middle school students could be assigned to exchange information either in writing or orally about their preferences in sports or music.

High school students might be required to solicit information from peers in their target group about their government's position on such topics as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The standards-setters recognize that some schools begin foreign-language instruction as early as kindergarten, while others do not offer foreign-language studies until high school.

Only a few states--Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona, and Oklahoma, among them--mandate instruction at the elementary level, said Jamie B. Draper, the standards project manager.

At the high school level, Ms. Draper said, "you would be hard pressed to find a district that didn't offer some form of instruction."

As the standards are written, she said, students may be able to achieve them in districts where foreign-language instruction is offered beginning in 5th grade. "We don't think anybody can do it in two years or four years."

The Non-Native Tongue

Regardless of the years of instruction offered, the project leaders said it was important to set standards for younger students.

"We chose to establish benchmarks at grades 4, 8, and 12 to align ourselves with all the other disciplines," the draft document says. "Were we to stand alone with standards for the [high school years], we would lose any possibility of a stronger position in the core curriculum."

Another difficult--and likely to be controversial--task is the application of academic standards to students whose native language is not English.

Ms. Draper said that, at the beginning of the project, the educators decided to limit the scope of the standards to the foreign-language classroom. Another group, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, recently decided to set standards for its subject area.

Another subject under consideration is how to differentiate, if at all, between the student who sticks with the same second language and the one who moves to a third or fourth language.

Even though the foreign-language educators expect that Spanish and the other Romance languages will continue to be the most popular, the more difficult German, Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and the like have not been neglected.

"The standards are applicable to all languages," Ms. Draper pointed out. "It's going to take longer to achieve higher levels of proficiency in some more than in others."

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