Communicating and Connecting
When we learn more than one language, we open doors to new ways of thinking and doing, believing and communicating, and through the process we learn more about ourselves. The World Languages discipline is about making connections.
World Languages? What happened to Foreign Languages?
In addition to English, there are more than forty-five languages currently used by the people of Massachusetts, including: American Sign Language, Arabic, Cape Verdean, Chinese, Creole, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Laotian, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese, Wampanoag.1 Important connections are made through ancient Greek and Latin.
Throughout this chapter, "language" is used to mean any spoken, written, or signed form of modern or ancient language communication. Whenever the terms "listening" and "speaking" are used, they can be considered to mean "receptive" and "expressive" signing.2
The term foreign language is a misnomer. This framework refers to the languages taught and learned in Massachusetts schools as World Languages in order to reflect the experience of the ancient cultures that preceded us, our own present multilingual populace, and a vision of a multilingual community for the twenty-first century. This framework renames the discipline in recognition of all languages and peoples of the world, and in acknowledgment of our responsibility to be able to communicate with our neighbors, near and far, ancient and modern.
In Senhora Riley's seventh grade Portuguese class, the students are using food vocabulary to write a role play about a party. Manuela, of Portuguese descent, works with Adam. Senhora Riley walks around the classroom, checking on the students' progress to see if anyone needs help. When she comes to Manuela and Adam, she sees this on their paper:
Adam: Queres coca-cola, Manuela? (Do you want some cola?)
Adam: Queres batatas fritas? (Do you want french fries?)
Adam: Queres uma hamburguesa? (A hamburger?)
"Can't you write a bigger part for Manuela?" Senhora Riley asks. "Since she already speaks Portuguese so well, the more she can contribute to these dialogues, the better for all of us. Besides, Manuela," Senhora Riley adds jokingly, "if you keep saying no, I'm worried you won't get enough to eat at Adam's party!" She turns to the next pair.
"Wait, Senhora Riley," Manuela says. "At the parties I go to with my family, it's not polite to accept what's offered so quickly."
"Oh?" Senhora Riley turns around.
"My grandmother always tells me not to be so eager about taking from people. And when I say no, Adam should keep asking," says Manuela.
"In my family, we have five kids," says Adam. "If you don't take what's offered right away, man, it's gone!"
"My grandmother would give you one of her looks, like this," says Manuela, scrunching up her face, and waving her index finger.
"All right, all right. I'll ask you again. Should I just repeat the same question?" Adam starts writing again.
"You could add something like, `Então, uma coca cola,'" Manuela suggests. "And Adam, how about offering some biscoitos and sumol at this party, too?"
Senhora Riley had written "Making requests, food vocabulary, verb querer, dialogues in pairs" in her lesson plan book for Wednesday, period two. Her original goal was to get her students communicating with one another using the new food vocabulary introduced in chapter three. But a lot more is happening in Senhora Riley's classroom than "Food vocab. with verb querer." Manuela's repeated `nao' in the dialogue has begun an engaging discussion about offering and accepting food across cultures.
Manuela's request for biscoitos and sumol made Senhora Riley realize that she could add another layer of inquiry to her class activity by placing the dialogue in an authentic cultural context. Always learning from her students, Senhora Riley changes the assignment. Now student pairs will choose in which the Portuguese-speaking country or community in which the conversation is taking place. They can research the party foods of that place by interviewing people from the community, looking through Portuguese magazines Senhora Riley has in her room, and going to the media center to access information in print and electronically.
Like Senhora Riley, today's World Languages teachers make language proficiency, or the ability to use language for purposeful communication, a priority. At one time, World Languages teachers relied upon fill-in-the-blank grammar exercises, memorization, and rote learning. Now teachers are moving toward a proficiency-based curriculum because they recognize the value both of the process of teaching for communicative proficiency and of having their students graduate being able to use the languages they learn. Teaching for proficiency allows students to experience the language in real ways; this experience of communication using other languages is what is unique about the discipline.
World Languages teachers also want to make language learning relevant to students' lives, by striving to make connections explicit. As in Senhora Riley's classroom, learning a world language is connected to a student's home and family, peer relationships, and hobbies and interests. Learners make comparative connections between their home culture(s) and the ones studied in school. World Languages classrooms connect to local and world events, to the arts and literature; and in fact, to all other learning a student experiences in or out of school.
This core concept, Communicating and Connecting, pervades the World Languages Curriculum Framework, including the Guiding Principles and Learning Standards. This chapter presents a framework for the learning and teaching of second languages in the future.
- What should students know and be able to do in their second language?
- What learning and teaching methods and approaches work best?
- Who should study a second language?
- How can the needs of a diverse student population be met?
- What programs and courses of study lead to attaining communicative proficiency?
- What role does technology play in the world language classroom?
Languages have been included in children's education in Massachusetts since the first colonial schools were opened in the 1600s. The first schools, called Latin schools, taught the more privileged classes Latin and ancient Greek as the means to read the classics and to study religious scriptures in their original languages. In the 1700s, a new kind of school appeared, named English schools for their tendency to downplay the importance of the ancient languages and literature. These schools took on a slightly more vocational responsibility and included instruction in math and modern languages for those planning careers in foreign trade. The nature of colonial and frontier life, however, made such schools inaccessible for all but the privileged few.
As education became a more public undertaking in the 1800s, modern languages in the schools became departmentalized within the domain of the secondary schools. Languages were seen by many as unnecessary in an industrializing nation with an isolationist attitude. World Wars I and II shattered that isolationism and renewed Americans' interest in the languages and cultures of the rest of the world. Soldiers returned from overseas with an awareness of the inadequate communicative skills they had learned in their high school language classes. Language educators began a reappraisal of the effectiveness of their traditional methodologies and approaches. New drill approaches to language learning such as the audio-lingual method (ALM) and others began to take hold in classrooms, as language laboratories became common equipment in new school construction. The surprise launch of Sputnik and the Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s sent Americans scurrying to add foreign language classes to the elementary school curriculum.
The movement for Foreign Languages in the Elementary School (FLES) grew throughout Massachusetts for two decades, then began to decline due to a number of factors. The urgency of the Cold War receded and this lulled many into complacency about the need for languages other than English. The difficulties of finding trained elementary language teachers and of scheduling time into the crowded day were additional factors. TV learning was a partial solution, but it presented marked limitations. Articulation of Kindergarten through grade twelve programs required planning, and often districts had no coordinators to do such planning. As funding for education declined throughout the 1980s, most towns shut down their FLES programs. At present, some communities offer a middle school start in languages, but most begin in eighth grade or high school. Only a handful of districts managed to keep strong FLES programs intact throughout the years of budgetary and programmatic cutbacks.
Current World Languages programs are changing some long-held traditions. First, where once World Languages were taught to a privileged few, now they are important for all students. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 recognized the importance of learning another language in order for the state's learners to meet world class standards. Second, the point of learning another language used to be to read ancient texts in the original, or to enjoy a career in foreign affairs or trade; now students need to gain proficiency to participate in a multilingual international community where isolationism is no longer an option. And third, a brief introduction to another language is not enough; in order for students to learn a second language so that it becomes second nature to them, language programs must expand from current four-to six-year secondary sequences to much longer sequences which begin in the elementary grades.3