Education Letter to the Editor

Our Schools Are Behind in the Global Language Arena

March 01, 2011 3 min read

To the Editor:

Concerning “The National Imperative for Language Learning” (Commentary, Jan. 26, 2011): In the late 1980s, New York attempted to implement a sweeping mandate for all students, beginning in grade 6, to learn a second language. These students would be required to demonstrate communicative proficiency in at least one language other than English before being awarded a high school diploma endorsed by the New York state board of regents.

The initiative started off with a bang. Multitudes of new positions were created for language teachers, language coordinators, grant-proposal writers, curriculum developers, teacher-trainers, and test developers. Language proponents were off and running. Publishing companies smiled. It all sounded so easy.

It wasn’t. The single greatest obstacle to implementing these lofty goals was the inability to locate and hire qualified teachers to help children develop second-language proficiency. There weren’t any. An even greater problem was the general lack of understanding on the part of lawmakers and educators about how language is learned and how it should be taught.

Many education leaders believed that one only had to use a textbook and teach from it in order for children to learn a second language. Others believed that one only had to be proficient in another language, step into the classroom, and begin speaking. Certified teachers with a desire to get on the foreign-language bandwagon busied themselves applying for jobs in this booming field, many without the slightest foreign-language proficiency themselves.

School districts devised staff-development programs for such teachers that ranged from the outdated audio-lingual method with its pages of rehearsed and memorized phrases to the “total physical response” method, which required no speaking whatsoever. And between those extremes were the natural approach, Berlitz programs, two-way bilingual education, and so forth. The sad truth of the matter is that few American teachers know or have mastered the skills for effectively developing foreign-language proficiency in their students.

First and foremost, one who would teach a language to another must be proficient in that language himself or herself. Second, that person must be a good teacher.

In looking for such individuals to implement the foreign-language mandate, however, New York state found itself somewhere between trying to hire proficient speakers from other fields and then training them to be teachers and trying to hire good teachers and training them to be proficient in a foreign language. Neither of those alternatives worked. Who was qualified to teach the teachers? And who was qualified to judge their qualifications?

After several years of struggling with this reality, even as parents cried out that their children could not be required to demonstrate proficiency in a language that the teachers themselves couldn’t speak, the communicative-proficiency requirement fell by the wayside. New York never did come to terms with defining proficiency, either with regard to how much or what type was required for students or the requirements for language teachers. Nor did it come to terms with the parochial views taken by the general voting public on why children would need to learn a foreign language anyway.

A few short years later, we find ourselves in a life-and-death economic struggle with countries that have prioritized global languages for centuries. Our own schools, on the other hand, have not produced teachers since the Sputnik era who can teach even the most common global languages. But, this is America. No worries. Let everyone else learn English.

Ann de Bernard

Bridgeport, Conn.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Our Schools Are Behind in the Global Language Arena