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Time to Add Language Learning to Teacher Preparation

March 17, 2015 4 min read
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By guest bloggers Emily Liebtag and Caitlin Haugen

Today, Emily Liebtag, Manager of Curriculum and Instructional Design, VIF International Education and Caitlin Haugen, Executive Director, Global Teacher Education argue that preparing globally competent teachers should include learning another language. While this is not yet a widespread practice, there are some promising examples.


Lack of Language Learning Opportunities for Future Teachers
It makes sense that teachers would study another language to meet the needs of their ethnically and linguistically diverse students. Teachers who study world languages can better communicate with students and their parents, understand the difficulties and frustrations of language learners, and experience a window into other cultures. Multilingual teachers model global competence and prepare their students for working in the 21st century.

And what better place to be exposed to language learning than during teacher preparation?

Unfortunately, exposure during teacher prep is not common. One study found that teachers study languages at an alarmingly low rate, and if they do, it is because of personal motivation, not out of requirement. Over two-thirds of pre- and in-service teachers did not complete any language training at all, but 90% of them felt that their undergraduate education should have required language training. This is particularly problematic considering today’s teachers are homogeneous and overwhelmingly monolingual—and the demographics in teacher preparation programs suggest this trend is likely to continue.

Leading supporters of internationalization from organizations and institutions of higher education—including unions—have long advocated that the study of world languages is a necessary element for developing globally competent teachers, but teacher education is still slow to change. There are a few programs, however, that are an exception.

Promising Practices
There are some teacher preparation programs that are embracing the need for language study. Teacher candidates at the University of San Diego (USD) are required to take courses that emphasize pedagogy for English language learners, including a course focused on first and second language development for teachers that explores world languages.

Starting in the late 1990s, the Oklahoma State Board of Education began requiring teacher candidates to achieve language proficiency before completing their programs and teacher preparation responded. Lack of enforcement led to steady declines in foreign language study among pre-service teachers, but the state’s policy can act as a model.

The New York University Department of Teaching and Learning responded to the rising demand for language savvy teachers by offering a Bilingual Education program designed to help prepare educators to work in multilingual settings. It includes a field experience in a bilingual setting. This program is innovative because it not only provides language learning options to future educators, but also strengthens the pipeline of available teachers.

International experiences such as student teaching or study abroad programs can inspire future teachers to pursue foreign language study and illustrate the importance of language learning. Gabrielle Malfatti, Director of International and Intercultural Initiatives at the University of Missouri College of Education, notes that students who participate in MU Teach Abroad programs “return with a craving for a deeper connection to the host culture, which can be aided by language acquisition.” Some student teaching abroad programs such as Bridge, provide language immersion opportunities specific to education. Many teacher preparation programs have started to offer international field experiences, but overall only 4% of education majors study abroad. This is certainly a catalyst for some, but presently it only applies to a very small number of future teachers.

Teacher Educators Are Key
We recently posed a question to the Developing Globally Competent Teachers LinkedIn group about language learning among pre-service teachers. It sparked a lively discussion, indicating there is a communal feeling that language needs to be considered in teacher preparation—and that teacher educators hold the key. Teacher educators can encourage pre-service teachers to pursue language study, and there are some examples of teacher preparation programs supporting their faculty in this endeavor.

Paula Cordeiro, Dean of USD’s program, noted she actively seeks faculty who speak multiple languages and provides incentives for language learning. To support faculty and students who want to develop world language skills, Malfatti recruits native Spanish speakers to participate in monthly Spanish roundtable discussions and hopes it will spark interest in other languages. Jayne Fleener, Dean of the College of Education at North Carolina State University, is leading a major internationalization effort with multiple institutions in her state. She challenged other leaders to consider alternatives outside of coursework for credentialing language competency as a road to language learning for more teachers.

Malfatti sums it up well: “I know that foreign language fluency and cultural understanding are attained by those who take ownership of their cross-cultural learning, not necessarily by those who are required to enroll in a course.” When all teacher education programs take ownership of ensuring their candidates are globally competent, we will see a demand—and drive—for language learning for future teachers and teacher educators alike.

Follow Emily and VIF International, Caitlin and GTE, Asia Society and Heather on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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