Saturday, January 19, 2013

Language and culture: what matters most?

In stressing real-world relevance, 21st century skills, and personal connections, today's most outspoken education experts have forgotten the notion of learning for learning's sake. Explicitly or implicitly, many of them dismiss the possibility that students might enjoy a subject simply because it's interesting, and not because it contains obvious, practical connections to their personal lives and future vocations.

The latest of example of this is seen in an article in this past week's Education Week. Entitled Language Education We Can Use By, it assumes that the only purpose of foreign language instruction is to enable students to communicate proficiently and understand "internationally":

Here's how authors David Young and J.B. Buxton open their piece:

As the global nature of work and life in the 21st century becomes clearer by the day, calls for a greater focus on international education and language learning are growing louder. Leaders from the education, business, and national security communities are agreed: International understanding and second-language proficiency are critical to individual and national interests—and our K-12 system must do more to promote them.
Echoing claims by advocates of other types of "reform" that most classrooms are still defined by desks in rows, teacher in the front, rote drills, and pen and paper activities, Young and Buxton claim that foreign language classrooms are stuck in the past in other ways as well--ways that, in particular, fail to foster oral communication and international understanding:
For too many years, we have maintained a language-learning strategy that simply does not work. In programs using outdated pedagogies focused on grammar and translation and coupled with low expectations, students take foreign languages with goals that seemingly include everything except actually learning to speak the language. If graduates of our high schools regularly reflected that, after four years of mathematics, they couldn't solve for an unknown variable, we would be outraged. But we share a laugh when someone says, "I took four years of a language, but I can't really speak it."
Of course, many high school graduates can't solve for an unknown variable after four years of mathematics, precisely because classrooms have changed (something that the "we" of Education Week is decidedly not outraged about). Such detrimental changes extend to foreign language classrooms, where, in fact, there has long been a decreasing emphasis on grammar in favor of oral communication, and where translation exercises have mostly vanished to make room for "culture." And, perhaps most worryingly, where multi-year training in one language has been supplanted, at many schools, by "world languages" programs in which, echoing Reform Math's "an inch deep and a mile wide," students gain "awareness" of multiple languages by spending a mere year or semester on each.

For Young and Buxton, there are two goals of foreign language instruction. One is true oral proficiency, which they rightly argue emerges only from intense immersion environments--of the sort that schools, unless they are dedicated, multi-year bilingual education programs, simply can't provide.

The other goal of foreign language instruction, the one that applies to non-bilingual schools, should be "cultural awareness and sensitivity, global knowledge, and exposure to the target language."
It is time to convert existing courses to a classroom experience that provides a combination of introductory language exposure, cultural studies, and deep, experiential learning about the countries that speak the target language. These middle and high school language courses would have the following three components:
• Specific, real-life language instruction narrowed to focus on survival travel skills and with the goal of teaching a subset of the current language curriculum to greater depth and understanding—with relevance and utility as guiding principles;
• A cultural-studies framework that teaches students how to understand a country's cultural identity and to compare and contrast countries; and
• Global knowledge through the study, comparison, and contrasting of countries that speak the target language.
To be clear, students will not leave these classes with advanced language proficiency. What they will obtain, however, are the language skills needed to travel in countries that speak the language, an understanding of other countries and cultures, and an awareness of the global issues that impact both those countries and our own.
"Cultural awareness" sounds suspiciously like the "science appreciation" that is increasingly eclipsing science learning. "Deep, experiential learning" about countries and cultures sounds better than mere "awareness," but what makes the authors think that classrooms can provide this any more than they can provide linguistic immersion? After all, what holds for linguistic proficiency also holds deep cultural understanding: the best way to acquire it is to spend time immersed in the culture. Short of this, the next best strategies are:

-Watching films and TV shows produced by and for members of the culture in question (with English language captions).

-Reading popular novels and magazines (ideally not in translation; students can start with texts written for children).

Popular entertainment, especially shows and texts that include realistic portrayals of the culture, provide highly revealing windows into such key aspects of culture as popular taste, popular humor, daily life, family life, social dynamics, and popular pastimes. These are things that classrooms and "comparative culture" lessons simply cannot capture, and they are more "deep," meaningful, and experienced-based than the sort of formulaic and reductionist food- tradition- and etiquette-based instruction that often masquerades as meaningful multi-culturalism.

Yes, teachers could assign novels in translation and spend class time showing movies, but a much more effective role for foreign language teachers is to focus on foreign language instruction. Young and Buxton are right that "advanced language proficiency" will elude most students. But the most advanced language skills are productive skills: speaking and writing. Comprehension (reading and listening) is another matter. A class that emphasizes such "outdated" things as grammar, translation, vocabulary building, and auditory training (instead of the kinds of social studies topics that Young and Buxton favor) can vastly improve comprehension skills. And as their oral and reading comprehension skills improve, students can gain more and more from those cultural artifacts (shows and texts) that, to those who aren't immersed in it, reveal the most about the culture as a whole. For those who eventually do have an opportunity for cultural immersion, a classroom focused on foreign language instruction (as opposed to "cultural awareness") will give them a leg up in maximizing this immersion experience.

Culture, of course, is inherently interesting. But so is language. Young and Buxton don't seem to realize that one of the great pleasures of learning a foreign language comes from learning for learning's sake. Especially for the more linguistically minded students, and there are more of us out there than you might think, there's something deeply interesting in realizing that English structures are fundamentally different from those of other languages, and in learning the details of how a particular language deviates from English in how it constructs words, phrases, sentences, and thoughts. For this, too, an emphasis on grammar and translation, however "traditional," is absolutely necessary.

As another article that came out last week (this one in the Economist) reveals:
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
That is, the "universal translator" that has allowed science fiction humans to communicate face-to-face with aliens will soon be available to real humans. When that happens, many of the practical arguments for learning a foreign language will lose their force. The learning for learning's sake argument, on the other hand, will endure as long as humans, and languages, exist.


MagisterGreen said...

To be clear, students will not leave these classes with advanced language proficiency. What they will obtain, however, are the language skills needed to travel in countries that speak the language, an understanding of other countries and cultures, and an awareness of the global issues that impact both those countries and our own.

If this is what people think foreign language instruction ought to be, then you might as well give the kids a copy of Rosetta Stone and a study hall period for a trimester. You'd accomplish your goal for substantially less money.

Meanwhile, I'll keep teaching Latin grammar and such.

Anonymous said...

Thought experiment: how useful will it be,for tomorrow's global residents, to be able to speak broken Spanish or German or Japanese? and to not have the grammar base to add language skills in situ? I'll answer that: think of the foreign-born folks you know that are now in the US. Those with good English do well and interact easily with US-born people; those with poor English struggle and are not taken seriously in many settings. Case closed.

David Foster said...

"Explicitly or implicitly, many of them dismiss the possibility that students might enjoy a subject simply because it's interesting"

I think this is true largely because there are so many "educators" who are themselves not particularly interested in *knowledge*...who do not find its acquisition rewarding...and who are projecting that attitude onto others.

See my post Skipping Science Class:

momof4 said...

Why do all of the bad ideas recur on a regular basis but the good ones don't? This is a reprise of the ALM (learn by speaking, no grammar) program I had in HS, in the 60s. Listen to tapes and it will happen! Not. If I hadn't had a summer job where I traded English lessons for French lessons, in a French-immersion environment, I would have been lost in college. In fact, the college bowed to student pressure and began an advanced grammar class for majors/minors. You do need to have the skeleton of the language.

ChemProf said...

Scarily, one argument the language faculty make at my institution for study of a foreign language in college is that it does make students learn grammar, often for the first time in any context!

MagisterGreen said...

Scarily, one argument the language faculty make at my institution for study of a foreign language in college is that it does make students learn grammar, often for the first time in any context!

That's basically my entire spiel.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, I recall telling a college sophomore that the difference between bien and bueno is that one is an adverb and the other an adjective and having him reply:

"What's an adverb?"

I also had students who did not follow the instructions on tests to "reply in complete sentences" because they didn't know what a complete sentence is (and of course they considered that a fair excuse).

This ignorance is the result of years of schools punting to the next level, hoping somebody will sort it out in the future. Children end up in college woefully unprepared for anything resembling work and learning, and it is then the job of the professor (or, more commonly, the grad student who is actually doing the teaching) to either teach him what he should have been learning all those years in grade school or to flunk him.

The quality of high school language instruction? In my experience n years of high school language instruction is always equal to zero. It might give them a better chance of passing the first semester, but I've yet to see a case where it is the equivalent of the first year and could prepare them for the second year.

EricMR said...

When I was in the Army I had two opportunities to learn foreign languages: Czech in the mid-'80s and Arabic in the mid-'90s. The Czech course was very old-fashioned: one grammar rule, one short passage, and 10-15 new vocab items per day. I ended up doing very well and even qualified for an extra 6 months of advanced language training.

Later, the Cold War over, I took Arabic. The language school had been taken over by whole language, where they just throw masses of "authentic" material at you to see what sticks. I worked even harder than I had on Czech, and didn't end up a quarter as fluent. It ws all too inchoate to approach with any kind of study method. I was flabbergasted that the PhD suit that was pushing this stuff was an ed school guy instead of a linguist (I had been a linguistics major in the '70s).

Trying to teach foreign languages without a solid underpinning of vocab and grammar is like trying to build a brick house without either bricks (vocab) or mortar (grammar).

AmyP said...

I'm a former language teacher (Russian and ESL) as well as a current English-as-a-First-Language teacher (i.e. mom). A lot of this stuff is pretty harmless standard language teaching, but I am concerned about anything that takes away from actual instruction time without offering a reasonable return on investment. Translated novels or movies do not belong in the foreign language classroom. There is a place for foreign language movies, but you don't just stick a random DVD in the machine and sit back and do Facebook--there has to be a lesson plan and the movie needs to stimulate use of the language, rather than just soaking up precious class time.

Learning languages is hard and it's always going to be hard. Just as there's no royal road to geometry, there's no royal road to fluent Mandarin or French. (What about kids, you ask? Have you ever seen a 1-year-old struggle with English? It takes herculean effort on their part to get to the point where they can string three words together.)

AmyP said...

I was recently having a good gripe about the Rosetta language ads with a relative of mine who speaks very good German as her second language. Our consensus was that the ads push the idea that it's going to be really easy with their program (no translating! no books! no memorizing!) and they push the idea that it will be as easy as learning your first language. Well, I'm not familiar with their particular program, but I think people are forgetting how hard it is for small children to learn English. My middle kid was two before he could say almost anything.

Katharine Beals said...

Amy, I've blogged about Rosetta Stone a couple of times, mostly recently here (with David Sedaris' take):
At best, RS, and others, are phrase and vocabulary teaching programs. They don't teach the hard stuff-e.g., grammar.

AmyP said...

"At best, RS, and others, are phrase and vocabulary teaching programs. They don't teach the hard stuff-e.g., grammar."


It's ironic that knowledge of grammar is the thing that allows one to use language creatively, rather than just parroting set phrases.

onebadbint said...

AmyP, your point about the difficulty of learning even a native language is SO important! Too often the old canard is repeated about how quick and effortless it is for kids (vs adults) to pick up a language. Au contraire, people only say that because they've forgotten the process and don't bother to observe that it takes a good 3 years of full-time effort for a kid to get even basic functionality in their native language, even with the strongest motivations in the world (no communicative alternative, and pleasing those they love most). A couple years more to get to a 5 year old's level with most grammar down (not all -- careful experiments show that kids at this age don't process passives correctly, for example, but rather guess the meanings of passive sentences based on real world knowledge). And even then, 5yo's have only about a quarter of the vocabulary of any know all this, obviously, but it bears repeating.

Anonymous said...

My kid dropped his Japanese course (after 2.5 years) because the teacher never got around to teaching the structure of the language, and he found it too frustrating to just be learning phrases.

TerriW said...

I found Rosetta Stone to be great for reviving long-dormant (it'd been about 20 years) French from the dark recesses of my brain -- but I had learned it "the old fashioned way" the first time around, complete with a summer living with a French family. I can't imagine the experience would be as fruitful if I was starting with it, fresh.

Catherine Johnson said...

Especially for the more linguistically minded students, and there are more of us out there than you might think...

This is absolutely true!

I teach "Basic Writing" at a nonselective college, and each semester I have at a minimum one student who is actively intrigued by grammar. These are students who have been taught very little grammar over the years & are being required to take the course. (My class size is around 15 students.)

Here is a perfect example of one such student catching me out in an oversimplification in class:

DT's astute observation

For the record, no one was going to be tested on lie/lay, and we had only a couple grammar quizzes all told.

This student made his astute observation not because 'it's on the test' but because he was interested in the subject of grammar.

Not only do I always have 1 or 2 students who are obviously excited by grammar, I don't think I've had any students who were actively NOT interested.

The idea that grammar should be "caught not taught" because a) caught-not-taught is more effective and b) grammar is boring and anxiety-inducing simply does not jibe with my experience in the classroom at all.