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Chat Wrap-Up: Foreign-Languages Education

April 18, 2006 8 min read
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Language: Mission Critical

On April 5, Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr fielded questions about foreign-language instruction, as part of the Education Week series “Language: Mission Critical,” for which they were writers. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: Can our education system react quickly enough to meet the demands of the renewed emphasis on foreign-language education without the use of instructional software, online learning, and related technologies?

Zehr: The language experts I’ve interviewed are encouraged by President Bush’s announcement of a critical-needs-languages initiative and request for $114 million in the fiscal 2007 budget to pay for it. But they are quick to say that it’s still not much money, when there is such a great need to develop resources and model programs to teach critical languages. They say it will take years to develop a pipeline of fluent speakers for languages such as Arabic and Chinese. They see a great need for development of materials in less commonly taught languages. I’m sure they welcome the use of instructional software, online learning, and related technologies, as well as the publishing of language textbooks. The challenge is to find a market for those materials when so few public schools are teaching critical-needs languages.

Question: One of the best ways to show students that learning another language is practical is to have them communicate with peers who live in countries where the language is primary. What resources, preferably Web-based, are available to help match students up with pen pals?

Manzo: The Web offers a multitude of opportunities for communicating overseas, and these include many services and resources geared to the needs of teachers and students. There are organizations here and abroad that link teachers with colleagues around the world and help them set up pen-pal exchanges between students. You’ll have to research these services to determine if there are any costs, and safety measures to limit the uses of any student information or exchanges to their intended purpose.

Here are a few suggestions, based on a pretty basic search of the Web:

• Europa Pages’ International PenPal service—allows teachers to post queries for free and to search those that have already been submitted from teachers around Europe. www.europa-pages.com/school_form.html

• ePALS.com—connects more than 6 million students and educators in 191 countries for classroom-to-classroom projects and cross-cultural learning. www.epals.com

• My Language Exchange—allows users to search by multiple criteria to find suitable pen pals for students. www.mylanguageexchange.com/penpals.asp

• International PenFriends Program—based in the United States, with 7 million members in more than 200 countries. www.penfriends.org/schools.html

Question: How I can increase my students’ desire to participate in Spanish class, and make them more enthusiastic about responding orally? When was the last time you suffered through indirect-object pronouns—do you see my point?

Zehr: I suffered through indirect-object pronouns, and countless lessons about the use of the subjunctive mode in Spanish, in my quest to learn a second language. But it’s been visiting Spanish-speaking countries or speaking with Latinos in the United States through my work that has helped me see the usefulness of learning Spanish and motivated me to improve my skills. I don’t expect your school district has the luxury of sending every child learning Spanish to Mexico for three weeks. The Internet, however, has video clips and language-learning sites that can help bring Spanish-speaking culture to the classroom. I enjoy a site, for example, that explains Spanish idioms. I also have a desk calendar that offers a Spanish idiom per day. And I read articles on the Spanish BBC Mundo Web site. Teachers are discovering these kinds of resources. In the high school Arabic classes I just visited, the teacher had youths produce hands-on projects featuring the culture of an Arabic-speaking country. She also had them practice writing short notes in Arabic, such as “Mom, I went to the park.” The students told me they learned a lot in her class.

Question: Can the current system of having students take language courses as a requirement for college coexist with a program designed to develop large numbers of fluent, world-languages speakers?

Manzo: Most experts agree that the current system of language study common in American high schools in ineffective and inadequate. Many of those classes aim to build only basic, foundational skills, and rarely get beyond grammar and vocabulary to engage students in real conversations and other practical skills. Certainly, different students are going to have differing needs and desires with regard to language study. Those motivated to undertake intensive study and with a desire to reach advanced proficiency (usually to expand their career choices) will need a much more rigorous program. Generally, intensive language programs are difficult to implement and maintain in most school districts, and often require a combination of grant funding and strong commitment from teachers, administrators, parents, and students. In Portland, Ore., the district has built a solid elementary school immersion program for Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and French with very few outside resources. Now officials are planning on expanding the Chinese program using federal grant money. But all students can benefit from improved basic language courses through better use of existing resources. Portland has tried to do that by promoting the importance of languages for all students, and offering more-intensive and less-intensive options for pursuing foreign-language learning.

Question: Bilingual students could be a great source of practice for English-speakers who want to learn a foreign language. Could teachers be trained to promote communication in the classroom between such students?

Zehr: One way that bilingual students are already a resource for English speakers who want to learn a foreign language is through two-way immersion programs. In such programs, children who are dominant in English and children who are dominant in another language (usually Spanish) learn both languages in the same classroom. They help teach each other. Last year, I visited a Spanish-English two-way immersion program in a public school in Hennessey, Okla., It was a challenge there for the school to find bilingual teachers, so you’re right that schools could really benefit from any efforts by universities to train bilingual people to be teachers. Besides the two-way immersion programs, I haven’t heard of many efforts by teachers of foreign-language classes to link their students up with other students in the same school who grew up speaking the language they are trying to learn.

Question: Please give three proven ways to demonstrate the necessity of foreign languages to skeptical administrators, faculty members, and parents.

Manzo: An administrator or faculty member who went through school even a generation ago lived in a different era. Now, with the potential for global communication (through increased travel, the Internet, and other technology), students need language skills to live and thrive in a shrinking world.

1. Businesses need employees prepared to work in the global marketplace … and to communicate with clients around the world.

2. The United States is becoming increasingly diverse ethnically and linguistically. After Hurricane Katrina, aid agencies had trouble helping large numbers of residents because of a lack of volunteers with language skills.

3. Research has shown that learning a language improves cognitive function. It improves memory and analytical thinking.

Question: I’m very concerned about the “language confusion” myth in early childhood. Many bilingual parents are being advised to drop the home language. This suggestion can come from teachers, pediatricians, and even early-intervention specialists with no training or knowledge about bilingual development and biliteracy. Can you talk about this?

Zehr: I do think attitudes are changing in favor of more appreciation of the home language than previously. I hear in my personal life people who are now adults and grew up in immigrant homes expressing regret that they didn’t learn the language of their parents. The struggle these days for bilingual parents to teach their children the heritage language seems to be more a problem of their children’s perceiving English as having more power in the society than of the parents not wanting to pass it along. Time and time again, I meet parents who speak to their children in the home language and the children speak back in English. The “language confusion” myth will be turned around as more parents succeed in raising truly bilingual children. One of my friends, an American who married a Russian citizen (now also American), is doing it. She speaks to their children in English, and he always speaks to them in Russian. The 5-year-old attends a local community-run Russian school on Saturdays to learn reading and writing.

Question: Research on brain development suggests that the brain is wired for languages during the early years, prior to a child’s entering school. The systems serving preschool age children are a mix of private and public, and teachers often have minimal education. What ideas do you have to support bilingualism in this population?

Manzo: Many of the teachers in preschool programs already have dual-language skill. In my son’s preschool, he had teachers from India, Ghana, and Pakistan, all of whom had learned English as a second language. It’s a shame that most programs don’t tap these language skills in structuring language-learning opportunities using the resources at hand. But it takes a commitment from the teachers and administrators, and some creative thinking on how to incorporate this into the program.


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