9 Ideas for Reinventing America's Language Education System

The following post was presented at my blog, The Everyday Language Learner on October 31st of 2011.  It received a lot of reaction and I thought it might be a fun topic to discuss here. I would love to hear what others think.  You can see how others responded in just under 50 comments at the blog and I'd love to see a discussion take place here.  


Early last month I put together a blog post called Sage Advice from 20 Amazing People for the Beginning Language Learner.  I asked host of folks to participate and in the end received a lot of really great responses and it was well recieved and an encouragement to many readers.  One thinker I respect is Seth Godin and so was extremely pleased to get an insightful and rather Sethesque response just moments after I sent him an email.  Here is what he wrote:

 I did very poorly in language in school. My worst subject, by far.  Then, one summer, I had to teach 42 kids from Mexico how to paddle a canoe. In Canada! ¡Remate!    Immersion seems to be the only answer. We ought to shut down and reinvent language education in public school… it’s a waste.

Seth’s response reminded me of a conversation I had had with another friend in the language acquisition field a few years prior and set me to thinking about what it would mean for the public school systems of America to “reinvent” language education.  And so in a diversion from my normal posts about language learning tips and ideas and thinking, today I want to offer a few thoughts on what it might look like to “reinvent” language education.

Reinventing Language Education

I wouldn’t go as far as Seth and say that what is happening in the public school systems in regards to language education is a waste, but I think most of us will agree that if we were to talk to ten friends who sat through two semesters of high school Spanish, most would say they learned very little.  Even fewer perhaps could actually speak any Spanish.  So while I wouldn’t call it a waste, anecdotal evidence at least would point to something far less than success.

In today’s post then, I want to offer a few of my thoughts as to how we might reinvent the system.  I put quite a bit of thought into this but in no way think my ideas are great.  They are I hope, a beginning.  I would love to see a serious conversation take place, for ideas to be shared, for risks to be taken.  I would love to hear what you think.  I especially want to hear your thoughts from your own experiences.  I write the post about the American system, but would like to hear what my international readers have to say from their experience as well.  An outside perspective is always a good one to have.  And we need to hear from those of you involved in language education.

Nine Ideas

I am not putting forth ideas to ‘reform’ the present system.  I am suggesting that we start over.  Not an easy task and not an idea that will be readily accepted. The status quo has a certain power to remain.  Change is always hard work but often well worth the risk and the effort.  And so today I want to present nine ideas as a starting point for reinventing the language education system in America.  They are undeveloped ideas at best, but perhaps can act as a catalyst for conversation.

1 – The Only Goal

The goal of the reinvented language classroom will be this: To see students develop a life long love of language learning that will continue for the rest of their lives.  To my mind there is no other goal that is higher than this one.  It is not a goal I see communicated clearly to students in our language programs today.  When I took German in university, the goal was to learn some German, not to fall in love with the German language and German culture.  When the end of the semester came, I wiped my brow, took a deep breath and promptly moved on.  So did all but one of my classmates.

2 – Scrap The Way It’s Been Done

I don’t think the status quo can be reformed in any way that will truly lead to a transformation that will affect significant change.  Because of this I think that perhaps it is time to scrap the way we’ve done it and start dreaming about new ideas and approaches to introduce young people to the wonderful world of language learning.  It won’t be easy and it shouldn’t be a top down, the White House has a new plan sort of change. It starts with a conversation which moves onto action.

3 – No Language Specific Classes

The first thing I would suggest is to do away with language specific language classes.  High schools would no longer offer Spanish or French but rather would offer a general class that would introduce students to language learning and would allow students to chose what language they would like to learn. The main goal of this class would be to help kids fall in love with a language and give them the tools and knowledge to become life long students of it.   I’ll expand on this later.

4 – Teachers as Coaches

Not having to specialize in a specific language, teachers would move into a coach/mentor role and would work to learn new languages along side students.  Teaching would still take place but would focus on teaching students how to learn a new language, presentation of ideas about second language acquisition and instruction on how to access the language on the internet and in the community.  The teacher would act as a facilitator, regularly introducing students to new tools and activities for learning and monitoring progress as they empower students to take control of their language learning.  Modeling language learning would be an important part of the job and they would work more than anything to help their students become independent, self-directed learners.  They would not teach grammar. They would not give grades.  They would not need to ‘have arrived’ as a distinguished speaker of a particular language but rather would be a passionate and joy filled traveller on the language learning journey – toward any language(s).

5 – Students Are In Charge

Students in this new system would be placed in charge of their language learning. They would chose which language(s) they want to study and to what level they would like to master them.  They could focus on one language or may chose to switch languages every month or two.  They would create (with their language coach) a personal language learning program and then chose the daily activities they would work on during class.  They would regularly reflect on and self-evaluate both their command of the language and their personal learning program.  This will all be a big change from anything they have done before and so teacher/coaches will need to work to empower and equip students to take responsibility.

6 – No Levels

There will no longer be levels in the language program.  The first year will be required but after that students will chose whether or not to continue to sign up for the language learning journey.   Each year they will pick up where they left off.  The end of the year will no longer signal the end of their interaction with the language but rather the opportunity to continue through the summer.  Teachers will model the life long learner attitude and invite students to see language not as a “class” to be checked off the list, but an amazing lifestyle into which they can enter. The goal will no longer be to pass level one and improve the GPA.

7  - No Grades 

GPA will no longer be important because grades will not be given. Grades are a sacred cow in our education system, but I think we need to do away with them in language education.  I am not sure what purpose they serve in actually helping students learn another language but they seem one part of our traditional system that may be preventing students from really entering into a passionate pursuit of learning another language.  Grades will always set the bar too low.  If a student needs to learn 100 words to get an A, they will inevitably learn 100 words and no more.  Students will study for the Final Exam in a crash course cram session after which everything ingested is promptly purged.  When grades are no longer the goal, the bar can be raised to something worth shooting for – learning a new language so that they can speak and interact with native speakers confidently.

This is not to say that their should be no assessment of or requirements on students.  Just the opposite. Students will engage in high quality self-assessment (guided by their teacher in the beginning) that assesses both their ability to use the language and their language learning program.  Teachers will also create certain requirements for students to meet.  One of these should be for students to demonstrate that they have created real engagement and friendship with native speakers using the language.  Perhaps they will be required to demonstrate 600 minutes of spoken conversation or 10,000 words of written communication. What ever it is, it should be real life stuff.

8 – Internet Is Central

Opportunities for language and cultural learning are available today in ways we could only dream of even ten years ago.  Until recently, teachers were the main means for student to receive comprehensible input. This was the reality of the pre-Internet world. With the Internet however, high quality opportunities are more abundant  than ever before.  Teachers must learn to help their student plug into these and use them as efficiently and effectively as possible.  It could very well be that the bulk of a student’s time in this new system then will probably be spent in the computer lab.  The Internet is the one tool that will allow us to create near immersion like experiences for our students.

9 – Human Interaction Is More Central

The main reason we learn languages is to communicate with real human beings, beautiful people from all over the globe who speak other languages.  Everything that happens in the language classroom should work toward creating human interaction.  The Internet is key only in that it is the best tool we have to help students develop the necessary language skills to be able to connect and communicate with native speakers of the languages they are learning. It is a tool and rightly used will allow student to create valuable interaction with students from the target language country.

A Final Thought

I do not offer these nine ideas as an expert in any way.  I do not pretend that they are fully developed nor is this intended to be a coherent plan for a new system.  They are ideas.  Plain and simple.  I know that there are some amazing teachers out there whose students are falling in love with the language and who are becoming life long students and so I in no way want to take away from the work that you do. This is in no way intended to be a critique of language teachers but rather ideas for changing the system within which they function.

I was both an ESL teacher and a regular high school English teacher in the states before moving to Turkey and so have some experience in this field. My work and writing now are directed at helping learners become independent and self-directed. It is from these two experiences that I have learned to believe in the power of giving students more choices and more responsibility to direct their own learning.

My goal with this post then is merely to see a conversation take place.  I could be way off base and many of you will likely disagree with the above, but I feel like there is some need to consider new and creative ideas for the future of the American language education system.

I look forward to a robust and productive conversation.

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