Reaction to Language Roadmaps in ACTFL’s organ

Sometimes I like to make up overarching plans, only to laugh at them later as I see the impossibility of carrying them out. Nice ideas, though.

I had a similar reaction reading the article in the latest ACTFL publication, The Language Educator. Often have I been rebuked on listservs for this attitude, yet I cannot abandon it. Just look at what – as an instance – Texas is declaring it is going to do:

promote broad public understanding of the cognitive, economic and humanistic value of fl learning

This one is worth quoting: “…. ensure school districts have a sufficient number of teachers in required languages and that those teachers have the requisite advanced-level language skills and knowledge to lead standards-based, proficiency-oriented classrooms.”

and to ensure Texas h.s. students graduate with ADVANCED linguistic and cultural proficiency in both English and AT LEAST one other language.

This one is hard to understand so I’ll quote it, too:
Create incentive structures to emphasize the role of business and government in partnering to promote the study of language and to develop advanced-level proficiency through incentives aimed at college students, recent graduates, and current employees.

Later on, Utah is highlighted and finally we have a state that has some investment in fl study. But why? Religion, that’s why. The LDS culture asks that young people volunteer as missionaries for 18 months or two years where they acquire the local language after a brief orientation in Utah to the language. So Utah has a pool of students who know they will be plunked down in the midst of a foreign society and have to visit homes all day long. Is there anything remotely like that in the rest of society? Absolutely nothing.

Now, as to Texas’ vaunted devotion to learning fl. How many fl teachers, let along members of the general public, grasp what is entailed by using the term “proficiency”? Proficient means you can DO something with the language; how many teachers teach for this versus how many worry that their students might not know the past subjunctive of the irregular verb “plotz”? Would that I were to plotz???

That leads to all those highly qualified teachers. Have you read the questions on listservs from fl teachers? Recently I wrote something in Spanish on a listserv and due not to my ignorance but to some cutting and pasting I had done, I used the wrong word (here it is: “Antes en la Lista ha sido muchos mensajes sobre esta cuestion, pero …” where I should have written “ha habido”). I was called a wannabe Spanish teacher. Now here’s the problem. See what this person wrote in connection with another issue:

“Those of us who majored in a foreign language and taught
twice, sometimes three times as long as you, wish you well.
I wish I could say I’ve learned a lot from you, but it isn’t so.
Having taught for 36 years and pretty much seen it all, I must say
that I’ve learned a lot from *** contributors. Most of who have
enriched my teaching are fluent and have spent their entire careers
in education. Their insightful posts were based on experience, rather
than research. Their wisdom came from the classroom, not the library
or the Internet.”

Note the reliance on classroom experience and the disdain for research. IOW, we are to rely on the directives of “veteran teachers” who may have taught the one year thirty times over, to use a cliche. Most veteran teachers have plenty of wisdom to impart, but others are so invested in a particular way of doing things, they cannot see any reason to change. When asked what the success rate is, they trot out Matilda from ten years ago who majored in the TL in college, or Leroy who travelled to the TL’s country and became fluent. The other 99.9999% of the students are not addressed. What happened to them? They are the ones who say, “Yeah, I took three years of X in school but can’t really use it.”

Trying to create some sort of dialogue on this experience issue is ticklish b/c it gets so tied into people’s self-image; they feel attacked if you question whether experience alone suffices when deciding major programmatic issues and directions. Some of them use their experience to resist change. The AP is a great example; there are teachers whose whole careers are built around the AP; if you take it out, they feel lost. Understandably.

One benefit of being on a number of fl teacher listservs for many years is – ah! – the experience that gives you a sense of how people are going to react. Just as veteran teachers can sense how students will react to a certain lesson, so I can predict the comments that will come the way of anyone who defies the wisdom of the greybeards. Should we learn from experienced teachers? Of course. But what we cannot do is take their word for it that their students learn the TL to a certain level in a consistent way.

What this Language Roadmap is trying to do is to see to it that each state graduates students proficient in at least one fl. I laugh at this not b/c I am a smart-aleck but b/c I smell wheels spinning.

Take the provision for teachers competent in a fl at a high level. Just how and where do we get those? Take someone with an impeccable command of both the Italian language and culture and then plop them down in the middle of a typical American school district? Stop and think about that for a minute. How are teachers treated? How do students and parents see them? How often have you heard a teacher preface a remark with, “I’m just a teacher….”? And you want Gina Lollobrigida to work among these folks? I don’t think so. Somehow I don’t see such a highly educated and sophisticated person fitting in to the typical American school teachers’ lounge.

Where do we get these teachers from, assuming they are willing to work in our schools? Who will pay for the extensive ed required? Classes, special schools, travel abroad? Do you seriously expect someone to go deeply into debt via student loans only to go into a $35.000 a year teaching job in Lubbock? Especially when they might get offered a secretarial job to a corporation in Milan.

Speaking of Milan or any other place where fl are spoken, how many school districts have in their budgets, do you think, money to send all their fl teachers to the country of their language once every two years or so, to maintain that advanced level of proficiency? The admins will surely decide in favor of that over getting enough desks so students don’t have to sit on the floor over which is running the effluvium from the broken toilets.

Frankly, I am sick of these lovely people floating about on their cloud of cultural superiority pretending like American schools are seriously going to fund, support, promote, encourage fl study. Some of these school boards don’t even sanction the teaching of evolutionary theory, let alone teaching their children to talk like a bunch of Mexicans. How do you think those teachers will respond to an influx of teachers not trained in the traditional way?

Which leads me to the suggestion that a national, a federal, yes, a Washington -based fl initiative be implemented. States running fl ed? You mean Tom DeLay and Trent Lott deciding what languages children will learn? If the Enron and Goldman Sachs crowd make the decisions, Chinese will be the only language taught b/c the Chinese will buy them off. We need government bureaucrats to make these decisions b/c they will use rational methods. Sorry folks, that’s just the way it is.

Which brings me to the public awareness. We can’t get the public aware that half the country is in failing physical and mental health, how are we going to make them aware of the role of fl in our nation’s economic and security health? Again, someone has to take leadership and say, “We need to do this.” Afterwards, the public will come around, just as they did on Medicare and Social Security.

So what about those incentives? What are “incentive structures”? Are they like…. incentives? I guess the writer means structures as in pay scale. I don’t know. And these structures will emphasize the role of business and government. What ? I absolutely do not understand this. Am I dumb (don’t answer that, Paul)? If not, then maybe we should wonder about someone promoting language study who cannot write a coherent paragraph. Perhaps he means government and business will provide the incentives (cash?) which will in turn show people how committed business and government are to promoting fl learning.

Now incentives to students I understand. If you major in a language, private or public sources pay part of your ed costs. I suggested something like this on a Listserv a few years ago and a member of the Interagency Language Roundtable said he floated my suggestions at a meeting. Later, Bush came out with an incentive program aimed at college students just like what I had proposed, the only difference being, according to this member, that I used the term Less Commonly Taught Languages and the government used the term Critical Languages (how do you know which languages will be critical? Who would have said Dari and Pashtun. But at least we have an incentive program for the study of languages. Now, how many school counselors and advisors will apprise students of this opportunity and how many students will have had such a good experience in fl study in h.s. that they will take advantage of it?

The Common Goals drawn from the state roadmaps:

make language a matter of public policy.
Who makes public policy?
How does something become a matter of public policy?
Is advocacy alone sufficient and if so, who will advocate?

establish an office of advocay at state level to promote the agenda.
Paid for, I assume, by a levy on the salaries of all state fl teachers. How much does it cost to rent office space and staff the office?
BTW, who sets the agenda?

train and certify a “qualified” teaching force.
That “qualified” sounds suspicious; why would you have to put that in there? It’s like people used to say they wanted to hire a “qualified” Black person or Hispanic, as if all Whites were, by virtue of their membership in the White ethnic group, qualified.
Where does this force come from? Who are these people? How do we get someone to learn Chinese – a good ten year investment – in order to come into the job market and discover the above mentioned advocay office had been underfunded and so there are no jobs for teachers of Chinese? Most people are not going to sink their life’s chances into something so nebulous.
And just how qualified? As mentioned above, I was taken to task for an error despite the fact that I converse in Spanish every day, taught it for 20 years, and function in a book club conducted in Spanish. I also have about 25 hours of college level instruction, incl. a couple of graduate level courses. Yet my peer has decided I am a “wannabe” Spanish teacher. Clearly, I would not be qualified, and yet many people will swear I was a really good Spanish teacher. This is not an easy matter.

Impove public awareness.
In the face of two wars, an economic crisis, an epidemic of chronic diseases even among children, a housing crisis, an energy crisis, massive pollution….. and someone is going to get the public suddenly taking to the streets to demand a good fl education for their kids? Hmmm.

Start language learning early.
I have only one word for that: pull-outs. One hour a week in elementary school when the children are pulled out from classes whose teachers’ jobs are on the line if those kids don’t pass standardized tests. The pull-out class’ teacher is a pariah and how much TL can be learned in one hour a week, esp when the classroom teacher rolls his eyes when the kid tries to lay some Spanish on him.

The first charge to be leveled against me is nay-sayer. I am not saying nay to roadmaps or any other effort to promote fl study and learning. We have to start with reality and the reality is a country filled with educated people who took at least two years of a fl in school and cannot function in it and never could. Is that what qualified teacher means, someone who, as the goals say, leads a proficiency-oriented classroom? How many fl teachers would be on board with that one?

And how would we see to it that this is all implemented. The Repulicans say Obama is a dictator; good, we need a dictator to get this carried forward. I cannot think of more than five or six states that would have a prayer of promoting this agenda: Utah for all languages, California and New York with their diverse populations, and maybe Texas for its size. Any state bordering Mexico might try inculcating Spanish in the population but there may be resistance; most people have no idea how much trade we do with Mexico, let alone with Brazil which would justify Brazilian Portuguese. I’ll bet the New England population of Portuguese provenance would opt for Luso-Portuguese b/c of cultural ties.

No, I am not against promoting fl learning. I just get tired of these periodic pronouncements followed up by nothing. OK, just do this, if you think I am such a blow-hard and so negative: do a survey of fl teachers in your school, district, town, whatever, and ask them how many of them even know of any standards, let alone follow them. Most will have only a vague recollection of having received a handout or, my favorite, seen a Power Point, on some state standards. But do they use these to guide their instruction? No. Why? Because it is assumed, back to the principle of the Veteran, that anyone teaching for a long time embodies these principles. It is therefore impertinent to ask veteran teachers to follow even simple guidelines for proficiency such as ordering in a restaurant, checking into a hotel, finding the airport or postoffice, inquiring about medical services, etc. How can the teachers be bothered teaching that mundane stuff when their students cannot grasp the difference between present and past perfect, let alone “do” those tenses with an irregular verb.

So, to avoid charges of negativity (a negative charge?), I will put forth the following:
train our teachers to teach for proficiency in understanding and expressing personal needs and then have an exit exam tied to the diploma.

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