Scholars Call for More Effective Teaching of Foreign Languages

By Sheppard Ranbom — January 11, 1984 8 min read

New York--A number of books and reports in recent years have criticized schools and colleges for neglecting foreign-language teaching and have stressed that the inability of Americans to communicate in any language but their own constitutes a serious threat to the nation’s economic and military security.

But the decline in the foreign-language training of Americans cannot be reversed, experts attending a national meeting said here recently, unless educators dispel the negative “image” that surrounds such studies.

School officials, parents, and students correctly preceive that foreign-language courses have been generally ineffective, said Leo Benardo, director of foreign-language instruction for the New York City Public Schools. Schools keep turning out students who have studied a foreign language for three years and “still can’t say boo” in it, he added. “We need to sell a reasonable bill of goods and stop promising more than we can fulfill.”

Mr. Bernardo was among a number of foreign-language specialists who discussed the state of their field and ideas for improving foreign-language instruction during the 100th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.

‘Start All Over’

Jean Pierre Cauvin, associate professor of French and Italian at the University of Texas at Austin and a foreign-language consultant with the College Board, supported Mr. Benardo’s contention that foreign-language training seldom seems to “take.” “Students begin foreign-language study in grades 9 or 10, study for a few years, then go to college, where they have to start all over,” he said. “Of those students who go to college--taking a total of five or six years in the language--few attain the proficiency of a native speaker.”

Other speakers noted that students have also been “turned off” to foreign languages by outdated curricular materials and needless repetition.

Enrollments in foreign-language courses have been declining since 1915, when 36 percent of high-school students were enrolled in foreign-language courses, according to government statistics. The decline steepened in the 1970’s after many of the nation’s colleges dropped foreign-language requirements for admission; that sent a message to schools, according to Clifford Adelman of the National Institute of Education, ''that foreign languages are not important.”

Today, about 15 percent of public high-school students take foreign-language courses, according to Mr. Cauvin.

Several speakers noted that schools must share responsibility with colleges for the declining interest in foreign languages. Schools have tried to accomplish too much, they said, creating “false expectations’’ that students should be able to master grammar, reading, composition, and oral expression, as well as to learn about the culture of a foreign country, in the limited time available for study.

Mr. Benardo argued that schools should narrow their objectives. They should emphasize “practical aspects of the language,” he said, rather than attempt to teach students speaking and writing skills and the works of a country’s great writers all at once.

‘Practical Skills’

Many of the efforts being made to bolster language instruction at both the high-school and college levels, participants said, focus on developing speaking skills and the so-called “practical skills,” which encourage students to learn language for real-life situations.

Last year, the College Board’s “Academic Preparation for College,” a guide to the skills college-bound students ought to master, suggested that their foreign-language training should focus on “active skills” that they can actually use, Mr. Cauvin said.

The guide urges that students develop “the ability to ask and answer questions in a simple conversation in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics; the ability to pronounce the language well enough to be intelligible to native speakers; the abiltiy to understand, with some repetition, simple questions and statements; the ability to [read and write] short paragraphs; and the ability to deal with everyday situations in the culture, such as greetings, leave-takings, buying food, and asking directions,” according to the report.

To accomplish this, said Robert De Pietro, chairman of the department of language and literature at the University of Delaware, courses must go beyond simple drills and repetitions and incorporate dramatic situations that occur in everyday life.

Rather than teaching conversation or grammar from a book, teachers can stimulate language learning by developing “scenarios” that students help complete and in which they take part, according to Mr. De Pietro.

“One minute of intensive performance,” he argued, produces “far better results than one hour of grammar study.”

Students need to communicate in ways “not simply designed to exchange information but to emphasize some kind of practical transaction. ... It’s amazing how much question-and-answer drill passes for conversation,” he said.

Another problem in language learning, according to Leon I. Twarog, director of the Center for Slavic and European Studies at The Ohio State University, is that students learn at their own pace but must go through classes that treat them as if they all learn at one pace.

Mr. Twarog described a self-paced-instruction program he has developed over the past seven years with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Education Department, and Ohio State.

The program, which employs teachers to answer questions, administer examinations, and converse with students in the language, is widely used by students and faculty at the university, Mr. Twarog said, and is being implemented at several high schools, including Columbus Alternative High School, Cincinnati’s Princeton High School, Chagrin Falls, Ohio’s Kenston High School, and the Ann Arbor (Mich.) University School.

In the program, students who attain a mastery of 80 percent or better on an oral and written examination move on to the next sequence of study. Students move through the curriculum as rapidly or slowly as they wish.

“Language learning is like climbing a hill,” Mr. Twarog said. “You can climb, run, or walk, as long as you get to the top.”

The instruction is not intended to replace regular courses but to make less-commonly taught language courses available, he added. Tapes are available for self-paced instruction in Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Czechoslovakian, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Latin, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croation, and Spanish, he said.

Teaching Abilities

Other speakers pointed out, however, that the quality of the language curriculum is principally dependent on the ability of those teaching. If improvements are to be made, argued Claus Reschke of the University of Houston, much work has to be done to improve the quality of teachers entering the field.

Legislation that goes into effect this year in Texas mandates that all new teachers must be tested in basic skills, Mr. Reschke said. In addition, all new French, German, and Spanish teachers in the state will be required to demonstrate by May 1986 a high level of oral proficiency in the language that they teach. The state will establish a minimum proficiency level based on a new scale developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (actfl) and the Educational Testing Service. (The scale is a modified version of a proficiency measure used by the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C.)

A national movement to improve the oral proficiency of high-school language teachers and to place more emphasis on oral instruction in the language curriculum is just getting underway, other participants agreed.

Besides Texas, the state of Illinois is now in the process of testing teachers on their oral proficiency, Mr. Reschke said.

This summer, the neh and the actfl sponsored a three-week seminar in oral-proficiency evaluation for teachers of Spanish, French, and German from the Northeast.

“The seminar was designed to provide intensive training in oral-proficiency interview skills developed by ets and to explore the implications for high-school curricula,” according to Heidi Byrnes, an assistant professor of German at Georgetown University who participated at the conference.

She said oral-proficiency interview methods will allow teachers to place less emphasis on “discrete-point testing” and enlarge the “communicative aspect” of high-school language instruction. This has been difficult in the past because, without a standardized measure that includes precise linguistic criteria, “the concept of oral proficiency has been seen as vague, subjective, wishy washy, [and] impossible to measure.”

‘Real-Life Skills’

Although many foreign-language educators called for greater emphasis on oral proficiency, some were concerned that the new emphasis on “real-life skills” will completely overshadow cultural, literary, and more “global” aspects of foreign-language education.

“Discussing works of art and reading literature are also part of real life,” said Barbara F. Freed, assistant dean for language instruction at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Regional Center for Language Proficiency there.

The regional center, established this year with a three-year $200,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, will help the university continue to move its language-instruction program away from “seat-time” requirements to a specified level of proficiency as measured on the ets\actfl scale.

The center will also serve as a resource center for other foreign-language programs in the region and will sponsor inservice training and seminars for teachers.

The goal of increased emphasis on oral proficiency, said Ms. Byrnes of Georgetown University, is “not to provide a methodological solution for all but rather a global approach” that can help teachers and students enhance all foreign-language skills--speaking, listening comprehension, cultural awareness, writing, and reading.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as Scholars Call for More Effective Teaching of Foreign Languages