Let’s look at the basics

I’m sitting alone in the house late at night with a glass of wine. Time to ruminate. A number of factors cause this rumination: reading Diane Ravitch’s book on education, reading some posts on listservs, my wife’s absence, watching a couple of HBO shows (Treme and Pacific) which make me think of my wife and my dad…. and so on.

This fl thing gripped me at a young age. Somehow I get the idea that inside a language lie secrets and I want to know them. In a way that’s true since language is one way to see into our minds and how they work. My involvement in fl teaching spilled over onto these listservs and so much interaction with other teachers makes me think a lot.

I like to go back to the foundations. If we want young people to know other languages, we have to give a reason. Because there is no pressing reason for most American youth to know another language, practicality cannot enter into the equation. It has to be the emotional and intellectual opening up of the mind to other possibilities of expression that stands at the forefront of the rationale. We can hope that eventually the student reads the literature and talks with the people of other countries, but this opening of the mind has to be the predominate reason.

Next comes the choice of languages. Tradition is being broken as more and more students opt for non-traditional choices like Chinese, but French and German are still important to know. The problem comes in when we try to teach LCTL like Norwegian and Yoruba at the high school level. That’s not going to fly. What we need to do is focus on broadening the offerings but within a narrow range of languages, always attuned to the needs of the local community, heritage learners, for instance.

Now, how to teach the languages. We certainly mustn’t constrain teachers but for me, who does believe strongly that some methods work and others don’t, the entry point is at the teacher training level. Strengthening teacher training will automatically expose teachers to a variety of methods and the research supporting them. We must trust that teachers will select methods that work.

In order to make sure our teaching is working, we must have adequate testing – valid and reliable. There is the crux – defining the goal of the fl class and designing a test to see if the student has reached that goal. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue against communication (including reading ancient authors for dead languages like Latin) as the primary goal.

Teacher training brings up the issue of proficiency. We can test for proficiency in history or math, but in fl we tend not to do so. We assume the college degree or the course work assures a level of competency. Not true. I know I passed an OPI in Spanish, receiving an Advanced Plus rating, when my Spanish was not nearly as good as it is now, and even now my Spanish has lots of gaps. So we need to decide what level of proficiency we are looking for.

In my case, my level of proficiency is not high for several reasons: I studied languages on my own as a hobby – an intense, obsessive passion, but not as a key to my livelihood. Once I became a teacher, I had no money to pay for travel or more course work, but the real problem was family responsibilities. We must be willing to make homestays and advanced course work available to teachers all along their professional development path. That is a tal order for an educational system that likes to get by on the cheap and that doesn’t even value fl all that much.

I was able to give many students a good exposure to Latin and Russian in my career. Despite mixed level classes and teaching 3 languages all the time, I often hear good things about my classes. I have never understood the value in spewing out students who can chant verb endings but hate the language.

Never did I feel inadequate; our school system would have been fine just teaching Spanish. The fact that both my own underdevelopment as a teacher and as a speaker of L2, 3 and 4 did not permit me to teach as well as the students deserved is not a fact I take responsibility for. Offering a class of 8 students studying at a second or third year level a language that is not commonly taught is not beyond the realm of conception. But it is seldom done.

So many of us will press on b/c we love languages, in the face of a bewildered public who cannot understand why we all can’t just speak English. Maximum freedom in methodology and style must be extended to teachers b/c it is the teacher’s enthusiasm that instills L2, regardless of methodology.

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