Often, it is easy for us to look at the most complex reasonings and the hardest facts to explain why our work matters, and then get lost. Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois, Sandra Savignon, reminds us that the answer for why World Languages (WL) education matters is actually quite simple:
Learning 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.
Fundamentally, our students have the right to be a part of the larger human community as Savignon defines it. They deserve to bring their culture to others, and to experience new cultures in return. Perhaps more materialistically, as we consider our increasing need to compete – as individuals and as a nation – against international education and job markets, our students will require a WL education in order to be prepared and be genuinely competitive.
Developing Key Skills:
Research has found that the benefits of learning a WL in early childhood are significant and long-lasting. Students who do not have the opportunity to engage in a WL education are often found to be at a disadvantage or completely lacking in the following life-long skills (for more, please see The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and “Why Bilinguals are Smarter”):
- Cognitive and academic abilities.
- Language sensitivity
- Increased vocabulary
- Reading and listening competencies
- Problem solving and reasoning
- Engagement and persistence
- Improves understanding of native language.
- Communication skills
- Social behavior
- Cultural awareness
- Native-like accents
Pathways to Opportunity:
While this logically follows from the development of key learning skills, it’s impressive to look at the numbers for how WL learning can affect future success:
- Academic Success: According to a study of 13,200 fifth graders in Louisiana public schools, students who had taken WL classes performed better on the English section of the Louisiana Basic Skills Test than those who did not. This was true regardless of race, gender, or academic levels of the students (Dumas 1999).
- College-Readiness: Students who have studied a WL consistently perform better than their peers who have not, including on all sections of the SAT. The 2007 College Bound Seniors report (issued by the College Board) showed that students with four or more years of WL study score on average 140 points higher (out of 800) in the Critical Reading section, almost 140 points higher in the Math section, and over 150 points higher in the Writing section, than students with half a year or less in WL education. In addition, Horn & Kojaku found in 2001 that students who took three years of WL in high school were likely to earn better grades in college and were less likely to drop out. In addition, students with a strong WL background could save thousands of dollars by testing out of required college courses, and prioritize valuable study abroad experiences.
- College Applications: Competitive colleges are increasingly requiring several years of WL courses at the high school level from its applicants. Most colleges require at least two years, but Stanford is recommending three or more, and Harvard urges four. With WL experience from an early age, we increase the likelihood of their fluency and confidence with languages in the future.
- Job Opportunities: The College Board has researched the job listings that their AP WL classes make more accessible to students. They list over 100 career paths ranging from Curators to Editors to Teachers to Public Health Workers to Sociologists. Whether or not a student takes these specific courses of study, a WL education will make these careers more available and real. Our students deserve to have these pathways available.
A National Problem
Despite these wide-spread, consistent findings that participation in a WL education is life-changing for all students, regardless of their background, we are not providing sufficient opportunities to engage in second language acquisition to all our students. In fact, Curtain & Dahlberg found as recently as 2004 that “children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds make the greatest proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study.” Nonetheless, particularly in low-income and minority school districts, these courses of study are often lacking. In Connecticut, for instance, WL instruction is offered in only one quarter of all urban public schools compared to two-thirds of suburban private schools (for more, see “The Benefits of Foreign Language Studies” on the Connecticut Department of Education website). As of 2003, “29 percent of public school principals in heavily minority school districts anticipated future decreases in instructional time for foreign languages.”
In the past decade, however, interest and support for WL education has been energized by an increasing recognition of a dangerous reality: only two in ten Americans speak a language in addition to English. A report from the Council of Foreign Relations, titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security”, states that this lack of preparedness can lead to struggles in “economic growth and competitiveness, physical safety, intellectual property, U.S. global awareness, and U.S. unity and cohesion.” Besides the disadvantages we are generating through a lack of WL provision on an individual and on a community level, we have come to realize that these disadvantages will catch up to us on a national level as well. Hopefully, this is an indication of a tide turning towards a more holistic and comprehensive education for all students.
World Languages in Mississippi
A recent study conducted by Paul Theobald and Kathy Wood, and featured in Rural Education for the Twenty-First Century, revealed that “rural students and adults alike seem to have learned that to be rural is to be sub-par, that the condition of living in a rural locale creates deficiencies of various kinds – an educational deficiency in particular” even if they are being offered an excellent education (18). This opinion is reflected in the numbers: in the 2007-2008 school year, Mississippi was one of three states to enroll less than 10% of its students in an WL course, despite showing an increase in enrollment since previous years (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages). The education opportunities our students are receiving is less than satisfactory. Speaking more broadly, only 6.8% of adults in Mississippi hold a graduate degree, and only 12.6% hold BAs (Measure of America, 2012). The effects of this education are felt state-wide. If our students are to succeed and become life-long learners, we need to enact a cultural shift that places value on rural culture and cultural identity. We need to give our students a competitive and holistic education.
Given these studies as well as our own regional experiences…
.. We believe that a strong World Language Education is instrumental to overcoming educational inequality for our students in Mississippi. We know that our students deserve equal opportunities in education so that they may have equal opportunities in their futures. World Language learning is one of those critical opportunities, and one that is too often ignored. Our students deserve confidence in their cultural identity as well as the cognitive, economic, social, and linguistic advantages provided by a World Language Education. They have the right to these long-term benefits. They deserve to see World Language as providing them with viable pathways to opportunity, both within and outside of their communities.
Comparing our students’ rural experiences to their urban counterparts, it is only logical that they have less access to new cultures, exposure to a diversity of languages, and the opportunities to experience how a second language can be beneficial. Even if our students do get a solid WL foundation, they have limited options in terms of real application, travel, or exchange with a native speaker of the language they are learning. It is therefore instrumental that we begin such exposure in the classroom and draw upon the communities we work within to enact a paradigm-shift for the World Languages in Mississippi.
What an World Language Education Looks Like for Us in the Classroom:
We have found that Total Physical Response (Storytelling) to be an extremely effective pedagogical framework and method for teaching WLs. While we encourage invention, creativity, and exploration of different pedagogies, we want to ensure that every classroom focuses on the following strands throughout the year:
Reading: Building literacy skills through stories. Reading comprehension cements language acquisition through the connections students build between stories and their personal emotions and experiences. How do we know if students are getting it? A Reading section on Regents-aligned assessments (you can find the New York State Standards for Foreign Language here).
Writing: Mastering grammar conventions and vocabulary by crafting stories that echo structures and motifs from their reading. How do we know if students are getting it? A Writing section on Regents-aligned assessments, measured against our Regents-aligned rubric.
Listening: Engaging all resources at our disposal, such as cognates and context clues to help interpret conversations at native speed. How do we know if students are getting it? A Listening section on Regents-aligned assessments
Speaking: Speaking fearlessly about the places and people students love. How do we know if students are getting it? A Speaking on Regents-aligned assessments, measured against our Regents-aligned rubric.
Culture: Taking the time to discuss the idea of culture and define culture in Mississippi so that it can be understood what it means to come from a different culture, to have a different perspective, and to celebrate a different history. How do we know if students are getting it? A Culture section on Regents-aligned assessments