The 5 Cs: Goals for Foreign Language Education

Submitted for possible publication.


Education is used here in two senses: the teaching of foreign languages (FL) and what the purpose of learning a FL is. The 5 Cs provided me with wonderful support for what I was doing in the classroom and I will interweave this exposition on them with a narrative of how they worked out in my classroom.

The concept of standards in education is nothing new, but until the last decade of the 20th century, foreign language instruction lacked a coherent set of standards. By coherent, I mean not just available for reference throughout the profession but closely tied to “industry” standards, i.e. what institutions other than schools demanded in the way of proficiency in language, e.g. the military, the diplomatic service, corporations operating overseas, and so on. Further, those standards needed to be articulated in a manner that eased the path to implementation for classroom teachers. One umbrella organization, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, set out in 1993 to produce a general set of proficiency standards. Each of 9 languages has a set peculiar to it.

The best presentation of the 5 Cs is to be found in Standards For Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (Allen Press, 1999) where they are called “goals.” (Elsewhere they are variously referred to as “strands” and even “standards.”)
The goals, the 5 Cs, are Communication, Culture, Connections, Comparisons and Community. The 5 Cs are one of the “organizing principles” of the standards developed by The American Council On the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The standards came out of proficiency guidelines in 1986 that led to performance based assessments for reading, writing, speaking and listening. These guidelines came in turn out of scales used by the government. By 1998 the guidelines were published.

When the goals, the 5 Cs, were initially offered in draft form, they thrilled me because now I had an answer for the “stay in your own lane” colleagues who sought to see only conjugations covering my board. In each goal, I will offer examples of how I tried to reach the goal. My own strength lay in Comparisons. Other teachers are excellent on Culture and some put together amazing activities reaching into the Community, from service projects to travel abroad. The primary goal for all of us is Communication.

Within each goal are found the standards for that goal. In my own state of Arizona, the state standards conform to the ACTFL standards, as did the diocesan standards of the private school I taught in. It pained me greatly to see my colleagues sniff at these standards and ignore them in their pursuit of grammatical accuracy. While I would never back off the primary goal of our students “learning the language,” a sad admission is that most of our students stop after 2 years and so will be less likely to take any language with them than to achieve a broader understanding of language, culture, and communities.

For some reason, I cannot find the standards for French put out by the Scituate, MA high school. If you can find it, it is a good representation of what one high school has done with the standards regarding French.

COMMUNICATION – of the many ways to describe communication, the ACTFL approach posits three modes: Interpersonal, Interpretive, and Presentational. The first is the one we commonly think of: a speaker and her interlocutor. Latin students would use the interpretive mode in a reading course, and presentational would be essential for a businessperson to engage in. For the last century and a half, FL instruction has focused on teaching first the vocabulary and structure of FL; seldom to students progress beyond that. When I inherited a third year Latin class, the students, all in the top academic level, were amazed to hear me use the grammar they had assiduously learned without knowing what it was, and would exclaim, “So that’s what that’s for!” when they would read or hear the accusative case, for instance. They had learned the grammar but had no idea what it was for. John DeMado has said that grammar guarantees communication but communication can still occur without grammatical perfection. Too often, our students are discouraged from using the FL until they can do so perfectly. 

At the lowest level, students can learn about language and dictionary use, as when a Latin student referred to someone as “motu”; I looked up the word and laughed when I saw it defined as “a jerk.” Aha! Pragmatics and discourse rules come into play when we interact with native speakers who overlap others’ utterances in conversation when we want to “finish what we are saying” and feel interrupted and slighted. In Urdu, it dawned on me that courtesy formulas were sometimes lacking because many of them were tied to religious expressions and until you know the other person’s religion, it is impolitic to assume. In some cultures, it is considered rude to ask the teacher questions (as if he hasn’t been clear) or to not give SOME answer, even if it is inaccurate (fun when seeking driving directions). While these can be subsumed under Culture, they fit more properly as features of discourse and pragmatics, i.e. who can say what to who(m).

All in all, the Communication goal focuses on meaning rather than form. As a result of this approach, there will be no lock-step progress in classes. Each student will learn in his own way to communicate what is important to him. Some cacophony may result and it makes standardized assessments difficult, but no one said the job would be easy. 

CULTURE – like Communication, culture has three components: Perspectives, Practices and Products. Perspectives are the cornerstone consisting of ideas, values, and attitudes that give shape and rationale to the practices and products. Practices are defined as patterns of behavior. 

As an old anthropology major, culture is something I know about and I liked very much this tripartite way of encompassing all the parts of what makes up a culture. Culture can be the trickiest goal to deal with, especially in an area like mine where many parents get agitated over words like “global” and “cultural relativity.” Teachers have to tread lightly. OTOH, in my neck of the woods we also have a large Hispanic population sensitive to culture and language and a large LDS (Mormon) population with lots of experience serving in over-seas communities (with a concomitant stress on FL education). I always suggested to my colleagues that they familiarize themselves with the approved textbooks of their school so they could show that the material they presented is presented in the approved editions. 

Cultural descriptions can stray into stereotypes. Young students’ strong point is not subtlety; be prepared to explain yourself if you make generalizations. Make connections (see Connections) to other disciplines like geography to show how Russians may have understandable suspicions of outsiders due to the steppes presenting no barriers to invasion. I liked to start by asking students why major cities are found on coasts and big rivers (due to the ease of water transportation in a time of few roads. Roman roads were always a good topic in Latin); I could then swivel to the centralization of government in Latin-America accounting for the dramatic size difference between capitals and other cities. People experience the force of the law differently in countries under the Napoleonic Code rather than the Anglo-Saxon accretion of precedence and inherent rights. 

Once you get to countries like Russia, you cannot pass over life under a dictatorship. When I first started, Communism offered many examples of how people survived under stark governmental domination, like by avoiding censors and getting your book published in a small city in Siberia out of sight of the Moscow censors. Slavery under Roman law was different from American slavery (I made the mistake one year of getting into American slavery only to run into some pretty abominable attitudes) and some useful reflection on our founding documents and how they led to abolition, etc. injects some understanding of how American and Roman values differed. 

The fun part of Culture are the artifacts aka products like music, food, folk costumes, and so on which provide serious fodder for relating these products to the perspectives found in the culture. For those teachers who, unlike me, have spent time in-country, the richness of personal photos, anecdotes and all bring the culture to life. Encounters with natives of the culture via student exchanges are another path to understanding if structured encounters are promoted. I told one class how Russians are not open to encounters with American students trying to speak Russian the way Mexican-Americans and Mexicans are here in the Southwest. Two went to Disneyland on spring break and came back wonderstruck at how a couple waiting in line, speaking Russian, suddenly bolted when the boys spoke to them in Russian. Dumb luck but it proved my point.

When you endure student comments like, “We don’t have a culture, we’re just straight Americans” and “I’m too White to learn Spanish,” you see how far we have to go and how important the job is.

CONNECTIONS – Clearly, in the comments above and below, the connections to other disciplines occur, like them or not. How can you not treat of geology when narrating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; how can you ignore the geography of island cultures of so many Spanish-speakers? We can see the evolution of consciousness in our society when we compare the Spanish textbooks of today and their treatment of the African element in Latin-American history with the one mention of that element only in the second volume of the venerable El Camino Real. English vocabulary draws on so many languages it is a virtual map of the expansion of the Anglo-American “tribe.” 

Nevertheless, I would have excited less opprobrium had I taught Marxist principles in my Russian class than I got when suggesting to colleagues we trade classes. Two teachers in 25 years took me up on it. One history teacher lectured my Latin class on Roman history as I showed his class how Latin developed into the Romance languages. Another teacher had my Russian students treat her students harshly as newly arrived immigrants, yelling at them in Russian to give them an idea of how disorienting it can be for those entering our country. (Not surprisingly given the power of role play, the everyday identity of my students as kids slipped away and her students expressed dismay at the “mean Ellis Island Immigration officers.” That’s all I ever got. So much lip service to teaching across the curriculum but little cooperation.

COMPARISONS – As you have seen above, lots of comparisons can be made with our American culture and the target language culture, keeping in mind that those cultures vary as much as ours. It is useful to find books for immigrants explaining American culture to them; we might not agree that all Americans talk about nothing but money. 

For me, the Comparisons goal allowed me to freely explore the history of English, showing how it related to the languages I taught (Spanish, Russian and Latin). The reason I did this was two-fold: I know a lot about it and it opens students up to a much broader vision of language qua language, especially the phenomenon of language change. One of my favorite activities was debunking language canards, myths and shibboleths (kings lisping do not reshape the phonology of a language). The role of culture on language could be illustrated by my difficulty in finding courtesy formulas like ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ in Urdu. A native speaker explained to me that since those formulas are cast in religious terms, you had to know the religion of your addressee before you could say those things. In Russian the word ‘pozhaluysta’ means both ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’. Courtesy terms like a sus ordenes, con toda confianza, and so forth in Spanish can sound almost cloying when translated but are de rigueur in polite society. 

The heavy borrowing into English can be contrasted with the use of calques in Russian, raising the question of the effect on the language of fewer opaque borrowings. Then taking the Latin words apart showing how ‘pro’ ‘tect’ is simply a ‘roof in front’ generates a discussion of how many Latinate words to use in creative or expository language. And listing the various forms of irregular verbs in English over the centuries takes the sting out of the occasional non-standard forms like ‘my dog got ran over’ and ‘he should have went the other way’. We don’t want English having the split we see in French between the spoken and written forms.

COMMUNITY – Many of my students went to Mexico with church groups to work on housing; many (about 40 in all I was told later, including the very first one) went on missions for their church to Russia starting around 1989. For Spanish, there were opportunities to attend quinceaneras; for Latin, the priest at the Catholic school I worked in offered the Mass in Latin. Latin students visiting old missions and were delighted they could read the inscriptions.

On the whole, I did not do much with Community. Currently, there is a lot of push-back on the notion that the economy is changing, moving away from a manufacturing industrial base and toward global entities that open up opportunities for those with language abilities. Nevertheless, that storm surge is occurring and I would suggest the business community to at least do outreach to FL classes, highlighting the resume cachet of FL. 

I recently heard a lecture on on-line abuse of the Classics by the alt.right (who knew they were literate?). Classics teachers need to be aware of the power of the internet community for good and evil. Anti-American voices in Latin-America do not come out of nowhere; more Connections apply here but must be treated gingerly due to political sensitivities. On a lighter note, jokes about “lost in translation” abound, like the person attending an Italian opera asking who this guy Louie is (Italian ‘lui’ = him).

To sum up, the 5 Cs reflect the focus on meaning of the ACTFL goals, steering us away from a “focus on form” (a technical term in the Second Language Acquisition field). An added benefit is that regardless of the level reached in the FL, the student, emerging from a class where these goals have been faithfully addressed to the teacher’s ability, will take with her an understanding of language often missing among people without such exposure. One book recently published suggests the elimination of all FL programs due to failure to produce fluent speakers. We are in danger, not just as a profession but as a nation. 

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