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With Nod to History, Foreign-Language Standards Unveiled

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Foreign language instruction is for all children.
The teaching of a second language should begin in elementary school and con tinue in a sequential fashion through high school and college.
And it should be woven into the other disciplines in the curriculum.


Anaheim, Calif.

A hundred years ago in Saratoga, N.Y., the Committee of 10, a group of educators appointed by the National Education Association, recommended similar tenets as the foundation for the teaching of languages other than English in the nation's classrooms.

Educators meeting here last week endorsed a comparable set of principles that are embodied in the freshly minted national standards for foreign-language education. The voluntary standards were formally released here at the annual gathering of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

"It's amazing to think that exactly 100 years ago we were making virtually the same recommendations," Christine Brown, the chairwoman of the standards-setting task force, told the crowd here. But this time around, said Ms. Brown, the director of foreign languages for the Glastonbury, Conn., public schools, it is no longer a committee of 10, but some 10,000 teachers at the fore of promoting rigorous academic standards in languages ranging from Latin to Spanish to Thai.

At the same time, however, project leaders acknowledged that they have a tough task ahead. They said they must convince the American public that foreign-language education is neither a luxury for the academic elite nor a subject that can be taught effectively in the two-year time frame that many high schools set as a graduation requirement.

"Our ability to get America to buy into it is going to cause each and every one of us to have the tenacity and the spirit of that tiny little spider," said Benjamin O. Canada, the Atlanta schools superintendent, alluding to the perseverance of the arachnid in the children's song "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider."

Global Importance

Foreign language is one of the last of the disciplines to unveil voluntary national content standards outlining what students should know and be able to do. The joint project of the foreign-language council and the associations of French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese teachers is also the last to be underwritten by the federal government. As of spring, the project had received about $750,000.

No official representatives of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities were on hand to witness the event. The department's liaison to the project had been furloughed because of the federal budget impasse--which has since been resolved--and was unable to attend. And Huong T. Nguyen, a senior fellow at the department who is on loan from the Long Beach, Calif., school system, attended but made clear that because she, too, had been furloughed, she could only speak personally, not for the department.

Ms. Nguyen took advantage of the opportunity to blast critics of bilingual-education programs. Bilingualism "is an asset, not a deficiency to correct," she said.

The award-winning teacher also reminded her colleagues of why in-depth foreign-language instruction is important in keeping the United States apace with the global economy: When Chevrolet introduced the Nova model in Mexico, it wouldn't sell because Nova means "does not go" in Spanish.

Celebrating Standards

The occasion seemed to mark a change in attitude among educators attempting to set standards. For months, the national standards-setters for the various subjects have been hearing that their years of labor might have been for naught. Caught up in partisan and ideological politics, the national-standards movement has been declared by many to be dead. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

Yet the tone of the ACTFL event and the mood of the more than 3,500 conference registrants was festive. "This is a celebration," exclaimed Kathleen M. Riordan, the president of the organization.

The relatively short document--just over 100 pages--asks students not only to master at least one second language, but also to learn about and respect other cultures, and in doing so, to become more knowledgeable about their own. At its core is the ability to communicate rather than to conjugate verbs and stockpile vocabulary--a strategy that many teachers abandoned years ago but that many others still use.

The standards fall into five categories, and within each of the five sections are more explicit standards, as well as sample progress indicators for students in grades 4, 8, and 12. (See box, this page.)

For example, students are expected to demonstrate understanding through comparisons of the language they studied and their own. For a 4th grader, that might mean displaying his knowledge of expressions of politeness in both languages. An 8th grader might have to show understanding of grammatical gender in languages, and a high school senior might examine various writing systems--logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic.

Sample learning scenarios, which describe an activity and note the targeted standards, also accompany the benchmarks.

Obstacles To Be Scaled

The standards-setters recognize that several potential obstacles lie ahead.

Project leaders said they would have to convince skeptics that all children, including poor children and learning-disabled students, can tackle a foreign language.

June K. Phillips, the director of the standards project and the dean of arts and humanities at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, said another concern is the shortage of foreign-language teachers, especially in languages that traditionally have not been taught in the United States.

Resistance also is expected from some educators and policymakers who will contend that there is insufficient time in the school day to make foreign language a core subject.

But Ms. Phillips pointed to the Utah legislature, which is considering a measure that would require students to learn how to use guns safely. "If they can find time in the school day to put in gun education, they should be able to find time for foreign-language education," she said.

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