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 V
World Languages programs should reflect the developmental nature of language acquisition.
For centuries, language teaching has been based on the assumption that learning a language meant learning a finite set of "content" consisting of the vocabulary and the grammar rules of the language. Over the last several decades, however, most teachers and researchers have come to agree that learning to use a language for communicating is a far more complex process than rote memorization of words and grammar rules. In fact, research is pointing toward learning and teaching methods which would allow students to acquire language more naturally, much in the way they learned their first language. (See Selected Resources Section for selected bibliography on research in the field.)
As in the "cookie" example in the English Language Arts chapter, a three-year-old child in the process of acquiring her first language listens, speaks, plays, asks, repeats, refines, self-corrects, tries new combinations of sounds and words. She acquires the language without so much as a ten-minute lesson on grammar or syntax. It is as if she were naturally inclined to learn any and all languages she is exposed to. When teachers play to this natural ability in their students by encouraging the process and allowing time for careful and continuous practice, how different an experience the world language class becomes!
- "Teaching a language is an interactive process which requires allowing time for lots of practice. It's not just something you write on the board."
A Massachusetts teacher
Some say this is easier done at the elementary level than at the secondary level. Younger learners, they maintain, are more inquisitive, more imitative, and more able to learn language through games, songs, and interaction with one another. Yet who would argue that a fifteen-year-old is not playful or inquisitive? Given the right environment, motivation, and opportunities for practice, even adults can lower inhibitions and sing, play, discuss, and communicate meaningfully in their new language, in ways which approximate the way they learned their first one.
Most teachers would agree that it is unfair to ask an older learner to acquire his second language entirely in the natural way, if his learning can be expedited by using the skills he has developed with age, such as reading, writing, and grammatical knowledge of his first language. These skills can help move the learner along the path to communicative proficiency, but only if he has the chance to use them for meaningful communication, rather than rote memorization and repetitive drill practice. By making classrooms centers for communicative learning and teaching, we can recreate (approximately) the safety and motivational ambiance of childhood language acquisition.
An environment that promotes language practice:
Allows students to take risks with language
Supports students' attempts to express ideas
Uses grammatical structures in their natural context
Uses "user-friendly" interactive technology
Corrects students' utterances by echoing them correctly*
Student: "She teachded me to tie my shoe."
Teacher: "Oh! That's great! She taught you to tie your shoe!"
In a proficiency-based program grammar is one of the many ways to assist learners in the complex process of gaining proficiency in a language. Teachers can provide instruction in grammaticality through a variety of modes, such as direct instruction, computer software, written feedback, peer editing, peer speech and listening feedback, language lab exercises, opportunities to hear and imitate grammatically correct speech. (See the English Language Arts framework, Guiding Principle V and Conventions strand, for further discussions of teaching grammar in the context of active communication.)
- "In my classroom, grammar is a tool for communication. I stop to correct my students when communication breaks down. I show them the right tools to get the job done."
A Massachusetts teacher
Learners come to us in many different stages of learning and/or acquiring both their first language and the ones taught in the World Languages classrooms. One learner may begin his study of Armenian in the ninth grade, for example, while continuing a K-8 sequence in French, and learn mainly through cognitive processes, like the study of the language's structure and grammar. Another may begin in pre-school and learn to play freeze-tag in the language long before anyone tries to teach him what a noun or an adjective is. An adult learner in an ESL class may excel in reading yet struggle with speaking.
Because learners come from such diverse situations with specific differences and needs, we can only attempt to describe in very general terms the stages students develop through as they learn to communicate in another language.
Listening or receptive skills develop early, as learners begin to distinguish the sounds of the new language, and recognize single words, then words within phrases, then entire phrases. As their listening skills grow, they begin trying to speak or express these words and phrases, moving from single word utterances to longer, more complex ones. Reading and writing skills also begin with single concrete words such as nouns and verbs; after more complex structures begin to occur in speech, these become goals for reading and writing. The step toward more complexity can only be made when learners begin to express original thoughts by combining learned elements. Generally, a student's receptive skills (listening, reading) will be ahead of his expressive skills (speaking, writing). The more learners practice these receptive skills, the sooner they will become part of their expressive repertoire. This is the strongest argument for total immersion in the language in the classroom. Given a limited number of contact minutes with students, it is essential to maximize them by using the target language as much as possible in class.
By middle school to early high school, as students begin to reach what Piaget called the stage of formal operations, they can think about abstract structures such as the grammar, syntax, and morphology of language, and how these can be of use in learning one or more languages. By the end of high school, learners can use the language for the same purposes as they use their first language, (for example, socializing, taking a history class in the language, or reading for enjoyment or for information) although they may do so at a lower level of proficiency than in their first language.
At the end of Stage 1 or PreK-4 Sequence,
students use selected words, phrases, and expressions~with no major repeated patterns of error.
Students perform simple communicative tasks in Stage 1 using single words such as naming the articles in the classroom, or listing their favorite foods. Students also use common phrases and expressions to complete simple communicative tasks such as saying good morning andstating their name, age, and where they're from. Because Stage 1 communicative tasks are not complex, there are no major repeated patterns of error such as consistently misnaming an article of clothing or misusing a weather expression.
At the end of Stage 2 or PreK-8 Sequence,
students use sentences and strings of sentences, and recombinations of learned words, phrases, and expressions, with frequency of errors proportionate to the complexity of communicative task.
As students enter Stage 2, they begin to create new combinations of the language they've learned in Stage 1. The learner is reaching beyond known patterns to create new meanings and communications. For example, if students learn to describe a t-shirt with stripes in a theme about clothing, they recombine learned words to say a zebra is an animal with stripes.
Messages are understandable but some patterns of errors may interfere with full comprehension. It is natural for learners to move back and forth between stages or levels, at one moment showing confidence and accuracy, at another moment losing both, when the complexity of the message interferes with the learner's ability to produce it accurately.
At the End of Stage 3 or PreK-10 Sequence,
students use sentences and strings of sentences, fluid sentence-length and paragraph-length messages with frequency of errors proportionate to complexity of communicative task.
Students are able to produce and comprehend fluid sentencelength and paragraph-length messages, but again, as complexity of the task or message increases, errors and hesitation become more frequent. For example, a simple communicative task for a Stage 3 learner would be to describe another person in the class; therefore accuracy is high. A more complex task would be to participate in a debate about a current social issue; in this case there would be a higher frequency of errors.
At the End of Stage 4 or PreK-12 Sequence,
students use sentences, strings of sentences, fluid sentence-length, paragraph-length and essay-length messages, with some patterns of errors which don't interfere with meaning.
Students convey messages with some patterns of grammar errors which do not interfere with meaning. As the task becomes more complex (for example, providing a rationale or presenting a hypothesis), errors and pauses to grope for words become more frequent. A learner's awareness of culturally appropriate language, behavior and gestures is evident in all communications.
Languages which do not use the Roman alphabet such as Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, and ancient and modern Greek require special considerations. Students can begin these languages early in their education and can progress in communicative skills in the same manner as they can in the more commonly taught languages. However, these languages are considered to be of a higher degree of difficulty for speakers of English. Progress may be slower, therefore, and more contact hours may be necessary for the same progress to occur.
In these languages, instead of integrating all the language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing during instruction, the skills focus depends on the language. In Latin and ancient Greek, for example, reading is stressed while in modern Greek, Chinese, or Japanese, the early focus may be on listening and speaking. The writing systems are taught along with listening and speaking. American Sign Language presently has no official written form. When ASL is the student's world language, reading and writing are not expected; receiving and expressing the language by video tape could be seen as similar to reading and writing.
Gaining communicative proficiency is a spiraling process; that is, the knowledge and skills a learner gains or practices at one stage in the process will recur as challenges to be met again and again in increasingly sophisticated ways through all stages of learning. When a skill spirals through the curriculum, it may be introduced at a certain point, but without the expectation that it be "mastered" after one three-week unit on that skill. Gaining communicative proficiency is a process that requires repeated exposure and opportunities to practice new skills, to receive feedback, and to use the skills in increasingly sophisticated contexts. (See also the English Language Arts Content section for grade level examples of spiraling skills; the Arts framework, Guiding Principle IV.)
The World Languages discipline is much broader than just learning a second or third language. Learning a world language involves experiencing and knowing about the cultures of those who use it, in addition to knowing how to listen to, speak, read, and write the language. This framework emphasizes the integration of culture with the teaching of language skills. In the past, textbooks have tended to isolate cultural information in sidebar sections, as if culture could be taught in incremental tidbits. Through language, students should experience and learn about new ways of thinking and doing, believing and communicating. Authentic representations of culture should be at the center, not the periphery, of the World Languages discipline.
- "Basing language learning in culture is what links our discipline to the changing faces of the learners in our classrooms. In learning another language and culture, we acknowledge the diversity of our students and our communities and we validate the contributions all can make."
A Massachusetts parent
Culture encompasses daily objects, games, work, clothing, housing, family patterns, behavioral routines, religious traditions, artistic and literary expression, and a host of other indicators. This definition includes the symbols of the dominant culture of the language, such as the most renowned figures and masterpieces in the culture's history, arts, letters, and sciences, and the widely recognized architectural landmarks, as long as these symbols do not define "the Culture" in a monolithic sense.
It is in the area of culture that teachers most need to become learners with their students, exploring questions together such as: What is culture? Whose culture is this? How can I interact with this culture as a learner of this language? (See the Social Studies framework, page [TBD] Cultures and Identities; and Arts, page [TBD] for further discussion of the question of culture.) Teachers convey the notion that culture is not something static and unchanging which can be described and "taught;" rather culture is a negotiated component of all communication.
Language is a tool of communication used by groups of people with a shared history and set of traditions, that is, a shared culture. As we acquire our first language in the home, we acquire our culture simultaneously. Culture is so integrally woven with language that we may not even notice we have learned it; our first culture represents "the way the world works" to us.
Ever since he was a toddler, Philip has treated his parents' friends informally, calling them by their first names. Because it contradicts what he knows from his first culture, Philip might object when we present new socio-linguistic constructs in Spanish:
Teacher: "You have to be careful which form of address you use for the person you're speaking to. It would be considered very rude to use the familiar form of "you" with a person who is your elder."
Philip: "That's so weird! Why don't they just use the same word "you" for everybody, like we do?"
As Philip learns more about the new language and culture, his attitude changes. He becomes more accepting of the differences he finds there: "Hey, you can tell what kind of relationship two people have just by which way they say `you'!" And perhaps more importantly, from the vantage point of this new culture he is able to step outside his own experience and reflect more deeply upon his own culture: "I wish we had words like don and doña in English. Our language needs a way to show more respect to the elderly."
"People who have learned two very different cultures have the advantage of bicultural vision; like binocular vision, bicultural vision allows people to see in depth; that is, they know that there are several ways to understand any utilize any situation."
Paul Bohannan, Discovering the Alien: A Workbook in Cultural Anthropology
Here are some ideas:
- invite community members for classroom visits, presentations
- take students on field trips, to interact with community members
- use the electronic mail, teleconferences, or the postal service to contact youths in other cultures
- collect authentic print and visual materials for classroom use such as comics, magazines, ads, children's books, newspapers and novels
- reflect on cultural characteristics and how they are apparent in classroom language use and role-play context
- use computer simulation to interact with other cultures
- display art
- listen to music
- show videos of newscasts, commercials, sports, sitcoms
- play board games
"Language is not a subject, but a means to learn," says a teacher when asked to explain how World Languages connects with Arts, English Language Arts, Comprehensive Health, Science, Technology and Mathematics, and Social Studies. Whether giving directions on how to measure an angle, or describing an illustration in a picture book, or narrating a classroom demonstration of magnetism, language is used as a means to teach and learn. When the world language is used to perform such language functions, the World Languages discipline can become a connector among all disciplines.
To teachers of World Languages, connecting across disciplines means literally opening doors to sharing the responsibility for certain portions of a school's curriculum in any content area. We can use language as a means to obtain, enrich, or expand content from any other discipline while simultaneously building language skills in the specific target language. The cultural context underlying all world language learning and teaching experiences is yet another possible connection to other disciplines.
World Languages educators refer to two approaches for making interdisciplinary connections: through content-based programs and content-enriched programs.
In content-based World Languages programs, the target language is the only vehicle for teaching the content from other areas of a school's curriculum using learning objectives and activities from those other areas. Immersion programs, programs which teach language by using only the target language as the medium of instruction, are content-based programs. Any topic from any discipline is taught entirely in the other language. For example, a math unit on measurement might be taught entirely in the world language. In the elementary years, when children can best learn the language in its functional contexts, they are well-suited to this content-based approach to language learning.
More often, the world language is used to reinforce and build new knowledge from other content areas, as in a content-enriched program. A content-enriched program uses the world language to amplify and supplement instruction from other disciplines. For example, in an elementary school, when children are learning about community service professions in social studies, a Chinese teacher decides to introduce community helper names in Chinese. She wants her students to learn the Chinese names for community helpers and to be able to construct a sentence with this vocabulary, for example, "I want to be a firefighter." By choosing to teach this in concert with the other core curricula, the Chinese teacher reinforces the concepts used in the social studies curriculum and provides additional learning opportunities through comparison of two cultures.
Proficiency-based World Languages programs emphasize the importance of purposeful and meaningful language use. What can be more meaningful than to use a second language in a school setting for tasks that are a natural part of school life, tasks that emerge from the content area of other disciplines? If students are receiving lessons in algebra or folk dancing or world civilizations right down the hall from the world language classrooms, then teachers can take advantage of those lessons as opportunities to provide meaningful language use in world language classrooms. The benefits of a content-based and content-enriched approaches are twofold: these approaches develop students' skills in the second language while enriching and enhancing knowledge of content from other disciplines.
A Classroom Snapshot
A high school German teacher finds out that many of his eleventh grade students are doing a project on an environmental issue in their science class. An effective content-enriched approach does not mean that this teacher simply asks his students to memorize a vocabulary list or translate these environmental concerns into German. Instead, the teacher seeks an opportunity to practice German reading skills, learn new vocabulary and grammatical constructs, and encourage his students to use their minds. He finds an article in a German magazine discussing the environmental issue. As his students read the article, they further develop reading skills in German while analyzing, synthesizing, and comparing the information in the article with what they learned doing their science project. The students' German language skills develop, and they gain new information when they consider the environmental dilemma posed in their science class, from a different perspective.
A Classroom Snapshot
One evening a teacher of Latin and Greek was watching a PBS American Playhouse production of "The Gospel at Colonus," a modern version of a Greek play which was adapted as a gospel meeting in an African-American church. While the plot was classical, the musical style was gospel music of the modern, southern black churches. This world language teacher was struck by the connections made to the original experience of theater in the celebrations. The video presentation symbolized so clearly the connections among theater, classical study, music and visual arts that she went to school the next day and talked to teachers from other departments (English, music, art, speech, ancient history, construction and family and consumer science, media, video production). They shared her excitement and began to map out a plan to combine their knowledge and areas of interest to create an interdisciplinary performance. Soon after, students and community members joined in on the planning. Some students were interested in the music, some in making masks and costumes for the performance, some in performing (singing and acting), building sets, videotaping, doing choreography, organizing, directing. Parents videotaped the rehearsals or used other skills to aid in the production. All the community was invited to see the performance which successfully brought together several disciplines in a meaningful and enjoyable way.
The first thing a visitor would notice in a learner-centered World Languages lesson is that the students are using the language. They are interacting with one another and the teacher, and communicating about things which interest them. Students are actively involved in and taking responsibility for their own learning. At the elementary level, they might be playing a guessing game to find who has the papaya hidden behind his back; in middle school, a student describes an article of clothing she saw in a magazine from the target culture; in high school, students are involved in a debate about lowering the driving age.
There is movement in a learner-centered World Languages lesson. Students are practicing giving and following directions. They cook and sample dishes from the target culture. They push the desks and chairs to the back of the room in order to make space to learn a dance or play a game. Blindfolded, they pull articles of clothing from a bag trying to guess what they are and in what season they should be worn. Movement is important in a student-centered World Languages lesson because it helps students acquire language through kinesthetic integration.
Students are thinking for themselves in the learner-centered environment. They use what they have learned to figure out how to get their point across in writing a letter, in a conversation, or a demonstration. They extend and use prior knowledge in a meaningful way, another way learning in this ambience becomes their own.
Students are unabashedly making mistakes, helping one another to correct them, reflecting on those mistakes when communication breaks down, and trying again. They stumble over words, sometimes mispronouncing them or choosing the wrong one. Making mistakes is a natural part of the process of trying to get a message across in a new language. Here, again, students are taking responsibility for their own learning.
The students are actively involved in using the language in this environment because the teacher has structured the time and the space to encourage this to happen. The teacher has planned for the movement and active participation of the students, and during class time circulates among the students, facilitating and guiding their communication with each other. They are thinking for themselves because the teacher has posed open-ended questions and problem-solving tasks which require them to think and work together. They are not self-conscious about their mistakes because the teacher has guided them in the crafting of a group culture where mistakes are accepted as a natural part of learning.
The environment of this learning-centered class is fertile ground for the development of habits of mind, or ways of thinking and behaving, which make a person a confident and effective language learner.