of light and shadows
The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language Is the Opposite of the Usual Way

This article is by Katharine B. Nielson, the chief education officer at Voxy, a language-learning company based in New York City.

The renowned Mexican author Carlos Fuentes once remarked that America’s monolingualism is a great paradox: We’re the dominant world power, yet also the world’s most linguistically isolated one. The numbers appear to bear this out. Roughly 17% of U.S. citizens can speak more than one language, compared with 54% of Europeans. Stanford Professor Russell A. Berman, former president of the Modern Language Association, has warned that the U.S. is quickly becoming a nation of “second language illiterates.”

If we can’t communicate with the rest of the world, our businesses lose opportunities, and our citizens lose jobs to global graduates who have the language skills we lack. Often the solution is presented as one of resources—if we simply divert more time and money to language instruction, we can finally cure the U.S. of its seemingly permanent dependence on English.

However, the problem runs far deeper than resources; it’s that as a nation we still don’t know how to teach language effectively. The curriculum for nearly every introductory language class revolves around grammatical concepts, and we spend far too much time on the rules of language. As a result, students are forced to suffer through grammar-focused instruction that makes them adept at conjugating verbs but leaves them mute when they are pressed to have a conversation. What they need instead is the chance to use language the way it was intended, as a tool for communication, not as a complex set of rules to master.

Europeans have seen the writing on the wall, and in recent years a popular language teaching methodology has grown up in many countries called “content and language integrated learning.” The idea: Use foreign languages to teach non-language subjects. Early research indicates that this is effective at fostering an environment that leads to impressive language learning.

Drawing on a similar approach, in 2006, U.S. Customs and Border Protection did away with the grammar-based Spanish course required of its agents-in-training and replaced it with a curriculum centered on teaching specific, job-related tasks in Spanish. The resulting improvements were dramatic. Not only did the agents get the language skills they needed to perform their jobs more effectively, but even though the new course did not follow a grammar-based syllabus, their grammar was better too.

These results just add to the growing body of research indicating that if we want to improve outcomes, we should fundamentally reevaluate how we teach foreign languages in our schools. We might start by rethinking the concept of language classes altogether. For instance, instead of having isolated courses called “Spanish” or “Arabic,” we should disperse language instruction across the curriculum. One way to achieve this and at the same time make language learning more engaging, would be to send younger students to specialty classes, such as music, art, or gym, taught in a foreign language.

Then when they reached high school, they would be in a position to benefit from additional specialty or elective courses that used foreign languages to teach anything from drama to home economics, allowing us to do away with the outdated, segregated model of language instruction that still dominates secondary education while still preparing interested students for advanced study of literature and culture.

At the same time, doing so would open up opportunities for schools with large populations of students whose first language is not English. Instead of treating them as an expensive problem to solve, we could take advantage of their native language expertise in specialty classes and electives, turning them into a valuable part of our solution.

Helping Americans move beyond English should be a top priority, but we won’t see the outcomes we need until we abandon approaches that don’t work. By de-emphasizing the focus on language itself, we may actually improve our acquisition of it, because when we stop trying to teach people about what they are saying and just start expecting them to say it, we will see far better results.


@темы: English, articles, languages