How ACTFL irritates me.

I remember so clearly my first ACTFL, in Dallas. I met Marilyn Barrueta, David Stillman, and so many others from flteach. I have never found a better place to eat than that Wyndham hotel we were in in 1999 (right name?).

Generally, I love going to ACTFL and usually do. This year I am going to two other conferences so I’ll wait until next year in Denver, closer to me. So when I read things connected to ACTFL that bother me, I will say something about them and hope no one perceives it as carping.

First, in the latest issue of Language Educator the CIA has an add that lists various languages. I looked carefully to make sure I wasn’t misreading it, but I wasn’t: among the “languages” listed was “African”. No such thing.

My guess is that if someone had listed American or Bolivian or Belgian or Mexican or Indian (either for a language of India or a Native American language), there would be corrections offered. I wonder what will happen with this linguistic faux pas.

Why is it a faux pas? It reinforces the notion that the speech of Africans is so simple that none of it rises to the level of a language. In the same way, the term “African dialects” assumes no speech of an African rises to the level of a language. It also assumes a dialect is somehow inferior to a standard language.

The job of a fl educator is to educate people IN a language and ABOUT language…. both. There is nothing wrong with being totally absorbed in one language, whether your own or a fl, but that absorption must not result in you wearing blinders regarding other languages. Every fl teacher should not only know that many languages, distinct and separate and full developed, are spoken in African, incl. European languages, but they should also know the names of some, besides Swahili.

The next issue is of greater moment. The executive director of ACTFL, Bret Lovejoy, wrote a rejoinder to the infamous column by Jay Matthews titled “Why Waste Time on a Foreign Language?” The executive director must, of course, support fl teachers. However, in the process he drastically overstates the amount of communication going on in our fl classrooms. He writes: “It is no longer a regimen of vocabulary memorization and verb conjugations.”

I’m not sure what classrooms he’s been in, but I have had the opportunity to both observe and teach in a variety of fl classrooms and to talk with both teachers and students about what goes on. When I question the amount of actual communication going on, I am usually attacked, accused of teacher bashing. But I have to put my foot down when I read a statement like Bret Lovejoy’s.

The damage such statements do, along with statements such as “The main problem with fl education today is that not enough is required and students do not take it every year of their schooling” is that they lead the public away from the issue of how languages are learned. More time on task will not result in greater progess toward proficiency if classrooms are indeed guided by a regimen of vocabulary memorization and verb conjugation. Better one or two years of actually using the TL to communicate in a meaningful way than 4 or 5 years of “pin the ending on the verb”. Assumptions are made too often that when we ask for meaning and context and communication we are talking about immersion or tprs or some other specific method. No, just meaningful, contextualized communication.

It’s not happening.

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