Why Learn a Second Language?
In a world in which the benefits of learning a second language have never been greater, the way languages are taught is changing to meet the growing need.
The 5 C's
In the 1990s, a coalition of national language organizations developed voluntary national standards for instruction in a second language. These standards reflect best practices, rather than the reality of language education in most schools and are meant to be used in conjunction with a state's content standards. They're organized around 5 goals:
- Communication. This is at the heart of language study, whether it is face to face, in writing or across the centuries through literature.
- Cultures. Students can't master a language without mastering the cultural contexts in which it is used.
- Connections. Learning languages provides connections to bodies of knowledge that are otherwise not available.
- Comparisons. Comparing and contrasting two languages helps students develop insight into the nature of language and culture, and realize there are multiple ways to view the world.
- Communities. These elements enable students to use the language beyond the school setting.
By GreatSchools Staff
Ask an American adult about whether she speaks a language other than English, and you're likely to get an answer something like this: "I took French in school, but I can't speak it."
That's no longer an acceptable response. Not to government leaders worried about the lack of Chinese or Arabic speakers in a post-9/11 world. Not to business leaders concerned about America's ability to compete in the global marketplace. And not to the parents and students who understand the competitive advantage that knowledge of another language and culture provides.
This pressure to teach students to communicate in a second language has drastically changed methods of instruction in the best language programs.
"What a lot of Americans remember is language as an academic pursuit," says Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "They learned a lot about a language, how to conjugate every irregular verb. Today, the emphasis is on developing students' communications skills - what they can do with a language. That's a radical departure."
But lots of students still aren't getting this kind of language instruction. In most states, language class is an elective not required for graduation. Language teachers are in short supply nationwide. Language programs are in continual peril of being cut in financially strapped districts concerned about students' test scores in reading, math or science - the subjects required to be tested under the No Child Left Behind law.
"It's still seen as an extra," says veteran teacher Michele Stemler, who teaches Spanish in Portland, Ore.
Parents have a key role to play in advocating for expanded language programs, pressing for better instruction and supporting their children's efforts to learn a language, language educators say.
How Language Programs Have Changed
Historically, language classes were taken only by college-bound students, and many took the minimum of two years that colleges required. They learned to conjugate verbs in Spanish, French or German, and most graduated from high school with just enough knowledge to pass written tests but not enough to carry on a conversation.
That is starting to change, as the need for fluency in more languages has increased, as technology has made more tools available to teach them and as researchers gain new insights into how children learn.
"We're talking now about what is it we really want our students to do," says Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools. "It's no longer a check-off to college admission. It's a tool for communication."
"We have to think completely differently," she says. "It's proficiency, rather than just 'seat time.'"