Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Foreign Language Education In America

The war over foreign language instruction in American elementary and secondary schools is a story of budget cuts and indifference, of innovative educators and antiquated instructional methods. Over the last decade, the number of elementary schools offering foreign languages of any sort from just under one-third to one-quarter (Zehr, 2009). Obviously, the issue of monolinguism is multi-faceted and cannot be neatly explained as a product of deep-seeded nationalism, as many would have it. Rather, xenophobia, outdated instructional practices, budget factors, and student attitudes towards languages all weigh in on its disturbing prevalence here.

The American educational system is in need of a massive and thorough restructuring of its foreign language curricula and practices.

With the preponderance of English in the international cultural, political, and economic market, foreign languages, even those of such high and unquestionable importance in this same market as Spanish, German, and French, have been relegated to the backburner of American schools while they try desperately to remediate math and science programs that have left American students well behind those of other countries in those domains. The push towards math and English education brought on by NCLB is, however, no excuse to cut other programs. Students will suffer if they are taught only the subjects that are quantified through state tests, and children in Anglophone countries are particularly at risk for monolinguism. Blake and Kramsch (2007) reported that less than one-third of British citizens reported competence in a second language, while across the Atlantic in the United States, that number dropped to a stupefying nine percent. More than half of the EU, by contrast, is at least bilingual (Blake and Kramsch, 2007, p. 247).

Ironically, a post 9-11 surge of nationalism seems to be behind the advancement of certain foreign languages. Non-European language classes, especially those for Chinese and Arabic, have seen a spike in enrollment, while German and French welcome fewer and fewer students each year (Zehr, 2009). This is, as Zehr points out, due to a perceived need, supported by the government, for specialists in languages that are “deemed critical to the country’s economic success or national security” (Zehr, 2009). One district in Kentucky brings over native Chinese speakers to teach its students and, since its inception three years ago, enrollment in the program has swelled to include almost half of the district’s 3,200 students (2009).

But with the current economic climate, many foreign language programs are getting axed, including some of these pioneering Chinese courses. While many programs are simply being reduced, the aforementioned Kentucky program will be cut altogether for the 2009-2010 school year, leaving all 1,600 or so students enrolled high and dry, with nothing to show for their years in the program but a basic knowledge of Mandarin (Zehr, 2009). Grants seem to be the only way for many school districts to keep their lesser-taught foreign languages programs afloat, with many schools appealing to foreign embassies for help sustaining the language’s instruction. The U.S. government is doing its part as well, securing grants for certain districts to establish and maintain Chinese and Arabic programs.

Foreign language instruction is, of course, good for more than just matters of national security; it is a vehicle through which to see different cultures. Some linguists have an approach that favors the humanistic side of language learning, such as Roger Allen, who, writing on Arabic instruction, said that Americans need “to become better at interpreting the complexities of messages of all kinds if they hope to understand the world” (Allen, 2007, p. 259). Many strategies are being deployed in order to fight the notion that English is the only language one needs. Donato and Tucker (2007) write of an exploratory Spanish program for speakers of English wherein core classes were taught for 40 minutes a day, five days a week in Spanish as a supplement to the students’ regular Spanish classes. The district later developed the program to include 12-week sessions featuring French and German that used elective and arts subjects as its enrichment content. Such integration with the rest of the academic curriculum would not only give students considerably more exposure to the language, but would enable them to see its practical use, which many foreign language courses simply don’t emphasize.

Also notoriously absent from foreign language classes in America are authentic texts- things actually used by native speakers of the language in their everyday lives. As Thomas Garza, a professor at the University of Texas, points out, “The sooner we bring in authentic texts- literature, film, TV, the sooner we’ll give students cultural literacy” (Bollag, 2008). This intimate familiarity with the language allows for more proficiency in navigating the registers of a given language. Although the authentic texts movement is just gaining steam in the university sector, which means it will be a while before it sees the light of day in high schools, it seems that the ‘Great Books’ approach to foreign language instruction is becoming a thing of the past.

Again, 9-11 played a central role in the rise of the trend of using culture as a means to teach language, as Americans were “caught not understanding foreign cultures” (Bollag, 2008). An important paper entitled “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” released by the Modern Language Association, outlines a culture-heavy model for “transcultural understanding” (2007, p. 4) and stresses the need for language programs that eschew the traditional drill-and-kill style previously used and favor programs that “systematically teach differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview as expressed in American English and in the target language” (p.4). Although the paper remains controversial, mainly for its all-out assault on the current structure of university foreign language departments, its implications for foreign language instruction at the elementary, secondary, and university level cannot be denied, and the approach it espouses is being adapted by educators across the country.

Ultimately, the problems with foreign language instruction are deep-seeded and varied. We cannot hope to solve the problem in just a few years and with a floundering economy. However, certain models of instruction, from immersion to the authentic texts movement, have gained momentum and legitimacy. For foreign language education to succeed in America, we need to revamp our attitudes and make space in our budget for the programs currently called for. We cannot be afraid to experiment, we cannot be afraid to admit that our previous approach was wrong, and, above all, we cannot deny the beauty, necessity, and vitality of languages other than our de facto one.

Works Cited

Allen, R. Arabic-flavor of the moment: Whence, why, and how? Perspectives, 91 (2).


Blake, R., and Kramsch, C. (2007) Guest editor’s introduction. Perspectives, 91 (2), 247-248.

Bollag, Burton. (2008). Foreign language departments bring everyday texts to teaching.

Education digest, 73 (5).

Donato, R. and Tucker, G. Richard. K-12 language learning and foreign language educational

Policy: A school-based perspective. Perspectives, 91 (2), 256-258.

Modern Language Association. (2007). Foreign languages and higher education: New structures

For a changed world. New York: MLA.

Wasley, Paula. (2008). MLA report on foreign-language education continues to provoke debate.

Chronicle of higher education, 54 (27).

Zehr, Mary Ann (2009). Elementary foreign language instruction on descent. Education week,

28 (23).

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