Guiding Principles for the Learning and
Teaching of World Languages
- "Language is a key to opening minds and attitudes. To speak, read, write, and understand another language is the beginning of understanding other people."
Senator Paul Simon, The Tongue-Tied American, 1980
Guiding Principle I
The World Languages discipline is an essential part of all students' education.
The United States and Massachusetts are rich in ethnic and linguistic diversity. Twelve percent of the people of Massachusetts speak a first language other than English. In certain cities, between twenty and forty percent of the total student population is enrolled in a transitional bilingual program.4 National and state demographics are changing. Schools need to respond to the changing nature of our society.
We do not have to travel abroad to encounter people of another language and culture. We are those people, and we interact daily with one another in the neighborhood, the classroom, the market, the bank, the museum, the house of worship, the town meeting. We can experience and appreciate diverse languages and cultures right here in our own communities, as well as by reading the literature or histories of other places, or by traveling. This is what is meant by exploring the cultures, both near and far, in the world language class. A multilingual populace, the result of world language study by all students, is respectful of its pluralistic, cultural, and linguistic differences, and capable of dialogue and cooperative interaction.
The process of learning a second language brings intellectual benefits, personal enrichment, and work skills to the learner.
The development of verbal skills comes in a number of packages. Second language learning involves and strengthens the language skills of listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and presenting, which are transferable to all areas of the curriculum. As students develop a vocabulary in a second language, they create and discover study habits and techniques for recalling what was learned. One student might realize, for example, that he can remember canis dormit because canine and dormitory are words he already knows. He develops attentive listening skills and careful diction, in order to hear and produce the new sounds of his second language. He learns to decode and decipher another writing system, skills which he can apply to developing literacy in his first language.
Students develop and practice reasoning and thinking skills in a classroom where communication is a goal. They ask and respond to questions, give and follow directions, categorize, find patterns, express and defend opinions, describe, hypothesize, summarize. From a first year level where a teacher gives the command, "Stand on one foot if you are wearing black shoes and a red shirt," to an advanced class where students compare public transit systems in the country studied and the USA, the language class challenges and sculpts students' abilities to use these thinking skills.
When a learner says, "I just noticed that the color words always come after the clothing word in Spanish, but in English we put them before it!" or another says, "How come in Chinese `I go' and `I went' are the same word, they are making metacognitive observations; that is, thinking about language and how languages work. Students observe a grammatical construct, reflect on it, compare it to the one acquired in the first language, draw conclusions, and articulate their findings. This sort of reflection develops mental dexterity and language awareness. Both contribute to a learner's intellectual growth in all areas of learning.
World language study expands an individual's knowledge base and enriches his life by opening up new worlds. Another literature, knowledge base, and way of being are accessible through language study. The young student of Japanese discovers there are fables, myths, folk and fairy tales in the language she is learning; she roots for the tiny Momotaro as he goes to fight the evil spirit. The middle grader rediscovers the thrill of his favorite genres of science fiction and mystery in comics, books, and movies in his second language. The high school student empathizes with the painful shyness of Cyrano de Bergerac or examines Faust's obsessive quest for knowledge of the meaning of life. The adult learner reads a newspaper in Russian from Moscow to get another perspective on events taking place in the Caucasus. Classical paintings and sculptures, masks and icons reveal their beauty and meaning for the language learner. Music and dance from other cultures bring the language and its people alive.
- "All students should read a rich variety of literary works including fiction, poetry, drama, and non-fiction from various time periods and cultures and relate them to human aspirations and life experiences."
The Massachusetts Common Core of Learning
Knowing more than one language is an increasingly desirable job skill. There are many career opportunities utilizing languages in the world. Such career opportunities should exist for all students. Locally, in the health professions, doctors, orderlies, nutritionists, and nurses in just about any urban hospital know the usefulness of a second language in their careers. International applications of the health professions could include careers in such fields as epidemiology and immunology. Other human service professions, such as mental health and social services, have similar opportunities at both the local and the international levels. Interpreters of all languages are needed in Massachusetts and across the nation. Scientists with more than one language gain access to international research. Education and career possibilities open up for those whose English and vocabulary skills are expanded by knowledge of ancient languages.
- Karla N., who works in a technology research company which is beginning to seek business in Latin America, says this: "Knowing Spanish gives me an edge in doing business with clients. When I speak their language, it forms a bond between us--we're more at ease with each other. I can call them up and ask questions right away, if they send a fax and it's not clear what they want. And I can follow their off-line conversations and get a deeper idea of what they need done. You're at a real disadvantage if you can't chat with them informally."
Multilingualism expands our sense of community. By crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries, we gain understanding of similarities and differences, and we learn to treat others with respect.
United States history has given us the legacy of a pluralistic society, with groups of vastly diverse ethnic, religious, historical, and cultural heritages. When each group listens carefully to understand the perspectives of other groups, without losing sight of its own identity, its members communicate through the connecting passageways of language and culture. The participation of all members is essential; when all voices are active in the dialogue, it is richer, fuller, more complete. Learning one another's languages is the single greatest step we can take to participate in this communal process of coming together from pluralities into society, which at its root means companionship. Through language and communication, we live and experience the true meaning of E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
Cross-cultural communication benefits us on the international level, as well. The United States' world policy, more than perhaps any other nation's, is shaped by its people. In order to make informed choices of policies and leadership, to be advocates or leaders of our own policies and exercise our role in a democracy, we need to be able to see and think outside the bounds of "one language, one culture." By understanding other peoples, friends and foes, we can build alliances with those we count as friends, and bridge the chasms between ourselves and those who oppose us.
- Many a sales campaign has gone awry in other countries due to poor language/culture knowledge. One firm lost money trying to sell doormats to Japanese households where shoes are taken off outside. Others were chagrined that their slogans didn't translate well: Body by Fisher came across as Corpse by Fisher, and Come alive with Pepsi translated something like Bring your ancestors back from the grave with Pepsi. The Chevy Nova in Spanish sounded like No va, or, It won't go.
Knowledge of another language is also important for economic relationships with people around the world. Massachusetts can compete in international commerce when its job force is capable of competing in many areas, from the small export business to the multi-national corporation. We can no longer assume that business will be conducted in English, whether it is occurring here or in another nation. By making World Languages instruction a priority in Massachusetts schools, we prepare our students for active roles in the economy of the twenty-first century.
The Common Core of Learning gives us a clear goal. Each and every student, regardless of perceived differences in ability, can and should learn a second language in the state of Massachusetts.
An exclusionary selection process for world language study is unacceptable. Each and every student should be able to access the benefits of learning another language by participating in a World Language program throughout his school career. Because they have been identified with special needs, some students historically have been discouraged from taking a language. Others are "tracked" out of the World Language program in middle school because they have been deemed "not good at language." No student should be denied the benefits that acquiring more than one language can bring.
- Use a multisensory approach to learning and teaching including auditory, visual, and kinesthetic techniques. For example, auditory and kinesthetic learners will enjoy learning the names of the parts of the body by singing a version of the "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" song and playing "Simon Says." Visual learners might learn to identify winter clothing by looking at an illustrated poster or department store advertisement in the target language. Use of technology such as CD-ROM and language laboratories can provide additional learning and teaching support.
- Teach learning strategies explicitly. For example, if you notice that a student learns vocabulary most effectively by creating flashcards with pictures of the words on one side and the target language on the other, take time to point that out to the student. Likewise, if another student learns by listening to audiocassette tapes and lots of oral repetition, make sure the student becomes aware of his or her strength in that area.
- Teach students how to organize their thoughts to express meaning in the language. Get students in the habit of framing questions that clarify meaning in a sequential progression. For example, if a student's task is to write a paragraph describing an illustration of a neighborhood scene in the target culture, ask him to organize the information he wants to include by using visual organizers such as T-charts and webs before writing.
- Use activities that require thinking skills. For example, when students compare and contrast modes of transportation from the native culture and the target culture they are using investigative thinking. When vocabulary is presented in a real life context, students are able to guess meaning. Present grammar as a puzzle and ask students to look for patterns. Use reading and process-writing strategies. Devise activities that allow for open-ended problem solving.
- Vary individual, pair, and group activities. Within one class session, the same material can be practiced by individuals, pairs, or groups. For example, if students are learning about weekend activities, as individuals they might keep weekly journal entries in the target language; in pairs they could develop and act out role-plays about weekend plans; and in larger groups they could be involved in projects.
- Provide varied assessment options. For example, one student may demonstrate knowledge of names of clothing by pointing to the correct picture of an article of clothing, while another might be able to give an oral presentation on the clothing she is wearing that day.
- Select materials carefully. Audio materials should have an understandable rate of speech and plenty of repetition. Look for videos with previewing activities, focused content, and clear manageable tasks. Real life objects (e.g. of clothing, or "props" to symbolize verbs) can help the kinesthetic learner by involving several of the senses in acquiring the new language. Students who are blind, for example, should have access to Braille (or the equivalent) materials in the language, as well as appropriate supporting auditory technology.
- Provide learning support to all students by involving the entire educational community. Arrange meetings between special needs teachers and world languages teachers. Talk to experts, share ideas with colleagues. Help create a school culture that encourages world language learning for all students.
As with all learners, teachers of students with special needs should accommodate for differences in learning styles, rates of learning, and areas of relative strength or weakness. Consequently, teachers should assess individual progress, emphasizing the student's ability to understand and convey a message, rather than focusing on the disability. World Languages should be included in a student's Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The World Languages discipline, by its very nature, assumes that learners are progressing at different rates and degrees of proficiency, toward their goal of communicating in the language.
Knowledge of American Sign Language and English meets the goal of acquiring a second language as stated in the Common Core of Learning. When possible, students who are deaf or hard of hearing should have options for studying any world language offered to hearing learners in their schools as well as the sign languages of other countries such as French Sign Language or Canadian Sign Language. Speaking in the language should be left to individual choice, and should not be the basis of assessment of the progress of students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The term "bilingual" is often used loosely to mean students whose home or primary language is not English. In common usage, however, "bilingual" includes varying degrees of language proficiency in both English and the non-English language. While many students arrive at school with some level of proficiency in two languages, others may arrive knowing only one language or have underdeveloped skills in either or both languages. Older students may arrive with literacy skills in their home language, yet lose these skills in an all-English program. Still others may be on the path to becoming trilingual.
Communicative proficiency is the goal of every World Language program. The contributions of students who already have some level of proficiency in the language being taught provide unique opportunities for learning and teaching in the world language classroom. These students should have the opportunity to use their native language to meet the goal of a second language as set forth in the Common Core of Learning. Each and every student should have the option of studying any language offered.
- "Teachers in World Language, ESL, and bilingual programs can all benefit from sharing effective teaching methodogies and techniques."
A member of MABE, Massachusetts Association of Bilingual Educators
- "We believe that all students should learn or maintain a second language, beginning in elementary school, and should be expected to master that language. This expands opportunities to communicate with others, to work in an increasingly competitive worldwide economy, and to understand the diversity of cultures."
The Massachusetts Common Core of Learning
Evidence is mounting from research over the last few decades that the best time to begin second language instruction is in the elementary school years, preferably before students reach age ten. Longer sequences of instruction can lead to attainment of higher proficiency levels for more students. Starting before age ten allows development of awareness of and respect for cultural diversity, and takes advantage of the developmental stages of elementary-aged students.5 Although World Languages programs should start in kindergarten, preschool offers many opportunities for students to experience other languages.
There is a direct correlation between the amount of time devoted to language study and the language proficiency which students attain.6 The amount of functional language that can be learned under the conditions usually surrounding World Languages learning in the United States (such as starting in eighth or ninth grade, and often starting over again at the college level)7 is limited. A number of national commissions have called for longer, uninterrupted sequences of language study.8
- "For the bilingual student, second language acquisition is easier when children come to school knowing that their language and culture are just as important as English. There are benefits other than language; an early start promotes racial and cultural understanding."
A Massachusetts Parent
Attitudes around cultural acceptance and respect are often set by the time children reach age ten. In fact, studies show that these attitudes most often take root between ages four and eight. In Languages and Children-Making the Match, Curtain and Pesola state that "The age of ten is a crucial time in the development of attitudes toward nations and groups perceived as `other.'" They cite research which suggests it is important that children begin language study before the age of ten, in order to tap into their openness to other ways of being before they begin to restrict their thinking to any one narrow view of people they view as different from them.9
Teaching World Languages in elementary school offers a great opportunity to take advantage of how children think and learn at different stages in their development. Four- and five-year-olds delight in language and are eager to imitate the new sounds of a world language. As they learn about their world through dramatic play and physical activity, puppet shows, songs, stories, and games in a world language are received with pleasure. Six- and seven-year-olds are gaining literacy skills in their first language which are transferable to a second language. At this age, children are becoming aware of their place in the world, which makes them receptive and enthusiastic about learning about other cultures. During the middle years of childhood, eight-, nine- and ten-year-olds are continuing the process of developing their self concept. They are curious to learn about others and use these lessons to reflect on their own ways of behaving. They are able to think creatively and are intrigued by new ways of expression available to them through a world language. An early start takes advantage of the parallel development of language and symbol acquisition in a student's native or first language, providing a strong foundation for building language skills which lead to communicative proficiency in any language. (See the English Language Arts chapter, Guiding Principle I, for a discussion of early literacy acquisition.)
Starting a World Languages program in the early elementary grades sends a strong message about the value our society places on knowing another language and culture. For bilingual students such a message validates their heritage, language, and culture and sets the stage for a successful school experience. For both the English-only speaking child and the bilingual child, an early start enables children to view second language learning and the insights gained into another culture as normal and integral parts of their schooling that they will carry with them throughout life.
- "My elementary students have no inhibitions about using a world language. They're not scared to make mistakes. They're open and willing to try anything. It's a perfect time to start developing desirable attitudes about other languages and cultures."
A Massachusetts elementary teacher
Guiding Principle IV
The primary goal of a World Languages program is communicative proficiency.
Communicative proficiency is the ability to use language for purposeful communication. A child says, "I'm hungry," with a purpose in mind. A teenager writes a note to ask for the car keys, purposefully setting mood and tone. A Latin student reads a text to grasp its meaning. An ASL interpreter signs a storyteller's presentation to an audience of deaf children. A student with cerebral palsy uses an augmented communication system to join a class discussion. Each of these tasks requires a certain amount of communicative proficiency, or purposeful skill at listening, speaking, reading, or writing the language.
How often have language teachers heard someone exclaim, "You're a language teacher? I took four years of (any language), and I can't speak a single word!" Teachers in Massachusetts would rather hear, for example, "You teach Spanish? [[exclamdown]]Me encanta el español! [[questiondown]]Dónde aprendió usted su español?" Among World Languages teachers there is a prevailing sense that if we want to get this second type of response, it is time to make some changes in our language programs.
A proficiency-based program looks at what students can do with the language, rather than at the number of chapters of a book "covered" or hours of seat time accumulated. Such a program also reflects how learners acquire language at different rates. This has implications for the scheduling and organization of courses, classroom instruction, and assessment.
Proficiency-based World Languages courses are labeled by proficiency levels (novice, intermediate 1, intermediate 2, advanced, etc.) and not by grade level or sequential year (French 1, French 2, etc.) Proficiency-based programs allow for varying rates of individual learning. One learner may need two years to move from novice to intermediate level, while another may need three or four. School credit is given upon completion of a year's work, whether a student takes that level once, twice, or more, providing the general course expectations have been met by the student.
Some school districts offer two versions of each proficiency level so students can repeat a level without using the same text, materials, etc. One year students might take version B, another year version A (in either order). In both years, they practice the same skills and language functions but in different contexts.
Ninth and twelfth graders, for example, might be together in any level. This gives a school more scheduling flexibility across grade lines and fewer course offerings due to the heterogeneous nature of the program. Teachers, too, tend to have fewer course preparations and can concentrate on developing varied strategies and a repertoire of student activities.
This means that rather than organizing lessons around grammatical concepts like placement of double-object pronouns in commands, declarative, and interrogative sentences, lessons are organized around functional uses of language such as asking and answering questions, or following and giving directions, in meaningful contexts.
- When the house and its furnishings make up a lesson's content, students learn language structures that enable them to give and seek factual information, and to identify and describe in the target language. "What is this?" "Where is it found?" "What does it look like?" Students acquire these forms naturally in the context of talking about the house. The meaning and use of the phrases are emphasized over the correctness of their form. Eventually, students are able to reproduce the phrases in other contexts and use them correctly. It is the teacher, as facilitator, who provides additional opportunities for practicing the forms via activities such as a cooperative learning jigsaw in which one student becomes an "expert" in the living room and then "teaches" it to his group, or students working in pairs visually reconstruct another room following each other's oral instructions. In this way students learn to negotiate meaning in order to comprehend and communicate in the target language. Teachers may or may not choose to elaborate on grammatical forms. When they do, rather than giving explicit explanations, teachers and students work together to explain the grammatical role as they see or hear it used.
Proficiency-based programs assess proficiency in addition to accuracy. It is important to teach what you value, and assess what you teach. Since we value the ability to get a message across in the target language, or to negotiate meaning between two people, we should include open-ended sections in tests to assess these skills. If every item on a test evaluates accuracy (spelling, grammar, structural correctness), that test does not give the student the chance to demonstrate his skill at negotiating meaning. Proficiency testing is personalized; it asks the learner to use thinking skills, and it provides opportunities to demonstrate practical skills.