Response to FL Annals article by Ping Wu in response to….

Right off the bat, Ping Wu errs in inserting an artificial division among the five goals in ACTFL’s National Standards (actually they are goals, not standards). She assures us that students cannot master a fl until they can communicate in it, thus introducing the long discarded notion that culture and the language that bears it can be separated. At the end of this article, I will surmise how she can so easily separate the two.
The only thing I liked about her response was her insistence on something I have been putting forth for years on various listservs and getting trounced for: that U.S. students do not learn a fl studying it in our schools, public, private, charter, religious, special, and so on. We can say that no one learns a language in school, but that’s not true. We can say that those who do just study it longer, but that’s not true in the sense that our students who study a fl a long time still don’t learn it. We can say that other people have more motivation than our students, but that’s not true.
At some point, we have to conduct research. I am grateful to Ms. Wu for listing research and policy papers I was unaware of which lay out the pitiful picture for fl learning in the U.S. Nevertheless, anyone can conduct research into this topic by asking any educated adults they run into if they studied a fl in school. Most will affirm that and then, when asked if they had ANY level of PROFICIENCY at ANY time, deny such. In a few cases, individuals may be fluent or able to “get by”, but closer questioning usually reveals they spent time in a social environment where L2 was used. The case is made forcefully, ending with the striking statement that in other disciplines, failure to learn is seen as failure, but in fl classes, no one seems really to expect any level of success. You can check this out for yourself by using your fl abilities in a small group of people who don’t know you are a fl teacher (if you are) and watching their astonishment. Almost invariably, the question arises, “Oh, are you _____________, I thought you were American.” They just can’t believe that an average American can learn a fl.
After saying this, I must part company with Wu. She lays this failure to learn at the door of the National Standards, at least in part. She does this by assuming that only the one goal, communication, lends to fl proficiency. She makes it clear that she believes that only work on the nuts and bolts of L2 – its grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, and writing system – count toward mastery/acquisition/learning/knowledge of L2. She pulls each goal out and assumes they are taught discretely (p. 560, left column, last paragraph), so that if 50% of the time is spent on Goal # 5, then that leaves only 50% to be devoted to the other four goals. That is about as complete a distortion of the expectations as to how the goals are integrated as one could wish for….. but who’s wishing? I misspeak, she has no idea what integration is.
Wu thinks (top of p. 560) that comparing languages means discussing the comparisons and that that has to be done either in the TL or in L1, and since she doesn’t believe students yet control that much of L2, it has to be done in English. While most of us fl teachers probably do address this goal in L1, that is our weakness, not an ineluctable element of the goal. She does the same thing with the Goal of connecting to other disciplines. This, in fact, is one of the easiest goals to implement in a fl classrooms, and some of the most hidebound teachers I know pull this one off.
I found nowhere in Wu’s response to the article by Levi Altstaedter & Jones (that’s two last names) any mention of what constitutes proficiency. And this leads to a surmise: Wu may use a lot of L2 in the classroom but underlying it all is grammar instruction. We cannot know this but all the instructors I’ve known or known of who use comprehensible input and other communicative teaching strategies inject culture, connections, community and comparisons into their lessons. On this basis, I’m guessing Wu does a lot of teacher-fronted, bottom-up activities in the class, but I don’t know.
At the outset, Wu cites a comment attributed to the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson:”Can anything be more ridiculous than to teach a child Cato’s “Soliloquy” who does not know how may pence there are in sixpence?” She follows up with: “Similarly, we should question the wisdom of watering down  the study of a fl in order to teach its application to other disciplines or in other contexts or its culture before the TL itself has even been learned.” (italics mine) (p. 560, right column, second to last paragraph).
Here is the gauntlet thrown down: learning a language is a mechanical process of learning/memorizing rules, practicing them, then using them to form sentences and higher levels of discourse. Before “higher level” skills like understanding the culture, connecting with other disciplines (like literary studies??!!!), using L2 in its natural environment in the community, or looking at contrasts and likenesses among languages, L2 must first be MASTERED (not Wu’s word, mine – she uses ’learned’).
This reflects a very mechanical view of language, one wherein L2 is divorced from use, from context, from culture, from application, and from insight. It is a self-contained phenomenon to be mastered as a unit without reference to anything else. For some of us grammar nerds and linguistics types, that does have some appeal, but it has little efficacy when it comes to learning a fl. How Wu could be a professional and hold this view confuses me. I’ve heard that the Chinese still insist on strict grammar instruction with “no frills” like culture (??!!), and since Wu is a Chinese name, it’s possible that that is the regimen under which she learned and she wishes to continue with that. Fine. But to take the profession to task for integrating all goals in a way so as to create a mutually-reinforcing learning situation?
She zeros in on a web search by students concerning Argentina and its culture. The conclusion reached by students, that Argentines are “just like us”, is justifiably ridiculed by Wu. What she leaves out or does not know is that American students have been conditioned by years of teachers poorly trained in multicultural education drilling home the sappy sentiment that “other people are just like us (and therefore no one to fear)”. She believes that students who do not already understand the principles of multiculturalism are like the little girl who did not know how many pence were in sixpence. Ping Wu has perhaps no knowledge of the uphill battle against centuries long, deeply ingrained divisions in our society. We have barely made a dent, even among college students, in the assumptions of inferiority regarding non-American, non-White peoples. One would think the outburst against the French in 2003 would have shown her something of this phenomenon. Perhaps, if she learned English as a fl, this aspect of American culture wasn’t included.
In my opinion, Ping Wu has misunderstood as well the language acquisition process and the mutally reinforcing effect of using L2 in settings where the language’s culture is infused into the lessons, subjects the student already knows are revisited in L2, the fascinating history of language is revealed by comparisons, and opportunities to employ L2 in natural surroundings are uncovered. She wants to split language off from its natural functions and while we do not yet know this as a neurological fact, it is my belief that such interactions and interconnections are the triggers of the acquisition process.

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