Monday, March 14, 2016

The Importance of Learning Languages

As people continue to become more and more globally connected due to advances in mobility and communication, there is a heightened national emphasis on foreign language competency.  Parents know that students who learn a second language glean a number of important benefits  such as enhanced college and employment potential, improved achievement in native language ability, increased intercultural sensitivity and understanding, greater cognitive development and an increased self-awareness of oneself and one’s own culture. Schools are responding as well and are shifting instruction from methods that primarily focus on grammar and vocabulary memorization to performance methods that focus on communication in meaningful and appropriate ways.

I am one of many who can attest to the fact that I have never been asked to conjugate a verb when traveling internationally and all of my previous years of studying a second language has not resulted in anything even close to fluency. The Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century 3rd Edition Revised (NSFLEP, 2006) powerfully and clearly declares, “To study another language and culture gives one the powerful key to successful communications: knowing how, when and why to say what to whom, All the linguistic and social knowledge required for effective human-to-human interaction is encompassed in those ten words”1

The Standards define five goal areas that are commonly called the 5 Cs – Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities- along with 11 standards for those goals areas. I love the fact that these standards no longer focus on what we want students to know about the language but rather focus on what the students can do with the language. 2

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines3 are also a wonderful support for schools immersed in this transition of foreign language instruction (now more appropriately referred to as world language instruction.)  ACTFL explains what students can do with the language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading using real-world situations. They also include proficiency descriptions entitled Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior and Distinguished levels. This is helpful since not all students begin the study of a world language at the same age, for the same amount of time or use the same type of program. Students can work at various proficiency levels in the same classroom.

Incorporating the standards and guidelines and studying the work of experts such as Laura Terrill, Greg Duncan, Donna Clementi and others can help schools to continually reflect and improve instructional practices and unit development by considering carefully what is taught, how we teach and how we know that students have learned. Best practices that support learners as they seek to acquire the skills needed for an uncertain future include a plethora of meaningful ideas.  Teachers can incorporate real world, interesting themes that are designed around discovery and heightened use of the target language in class.  They can also promote the development of the widely accepted 21st Century skills  - Communication, Collaboration & Cross-Cultural Understanding, Creativity & Innovation and Critical Thinking & Problem Solving.  Instruction is brain-based, differentiated, and empowers students by promoting self-efficacy and participation in the learning while also motivating students to want to learn. Finally, teachers can integrate a variety of formative and summative assessment options such as rubrics, interpretive, interpersonal and presentation elements.
I love the words by Sandra Savignon highlighted in Donna Clementi and Laura Terrill’s book (p. 59)2Learning to speak another’s language means taking one’s place in the human community. It means reaching out to others across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Language is far more than a system to be explained. It is our most important link to the world around us. Language is culture in motion. It is people interacting with people.”

1 Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century: Including Arabic, Chinese, Classical Languages, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 3rd ed. Yonkers, NY: National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 2006. 11. Print.
2Clementi, Donna, and Laura Terrill. The Keys to Planning for Learning: Effective Curriculum, Unit, and Lesson Design. Alexandria: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2013. Print.
 3American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Proficiency Guidelines- Speaking, Writing, Listening and Reading, (3rd Ed). Alexandria, Va. Web. 31 Dec. 2015. .