Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Whither grammar: the fuzzy new standards for foreign language instruction

Today's foreign language classes so de-emphasize grammar in favor of "communication" and culture that students are more likely to be:

--conversing in groups in broken, Americanized Spanish
--performing skits in pidgin Italian
--graphic-designing French restaurant menus
or (one of my nephew's recent assignments):
--decorating tissue boxes with German vocabulary

...than learning and practicing grammar.

One force behind this are the National Standards for Foreign Language Education, first published in 1996.  I excerpt them here, with the more remarkable points in boldface:


Communicate in Languages Other Than English

Standard 1.1: Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions
Standard 1.2: Students understand and interpret written and spoken language on a variety of topics
Standard 1.3: Students present information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics.

Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures

Standard 2.1: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied
Standard 2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied

Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information

Standard 3.1: Students reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines through the foreign language
Standard 3.2: Students acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures

Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture

Standard 4.1: Students demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own
Standard 4.2: Students demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.

Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home & Around the World

Standard 5.1: Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting
Standard 5.2: Students show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.

The national standards thus reduce foreign language to a tool for acquiring information, expressing thoughts and feelings, and obtaining personal fulfillment. Further, they dilute it with aspects of culture that might be more appropriate for anthropology class.  Only one standard, 4.1, acknowledges that language might be interesting in and of itself, and none mention grammar.

Except via intensive immersion, one cannot get far beyond pidgin speech, or understand written language, without explicit grammar instruction. For the grammatically-impaired, even access to culture is limited:  who wants to spend loads of time with someone who either speaks like a three-year-old or mangles his or her sentences?

Of course, we Americans have had a long history of linguistic insensitivity and arrogance, and perhaps today's foreign language standards are simply the latest manifestation.

But now even left-brain learners, many of them highly receptive to grammar, are decreasingly likely to master a foreign language.

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