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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Global Language Learning Gives Students the Edge

Learning foreign languages boosts brain development, bridges cultural connections, and gives us an economic edge. So why isn't it a priority in public schools?
By Dan Fost
Credit: Aaron Meshon

In the quickly evolving world of global-language learning, America is waking up to a new reality. Though we once asserted a sense of world dominance that relied on foreigners learning English, the United States is starting to hear the clarion call of a connected world in which knowing how to communicate in multiple languages is crucial.

We are at a pivotal point in what is increasingly called world-language education, poised to regain a measure of competitiveness with innovative tools and programs that promote crosscultural understanding. But unless we shed our reluctance to speak any language other than English, the potential of this renaissance may not take hold, and we could lose our edge.

New methods and technologies are opening up incredible opportunities in this realm, providing real-world connections with those speaking other languages, thus motivating students to learn to communicate in a foreign language. To that end, wired schools are using high-tech tools -- mostly free, like Skype and Google Talk -- that make it easy to connect students with their counterparts in other countries. And government funding is creating opportunities for student-exchange programs.

On the forefront of this cause is the International Education and Resource Network-USA (iEARN), which started in 1988 to foster U.S.-Soviet cultural understanding and has kicked off language learning in 130 countries. Among its key initiatives is an online program where kids from different countries can work together on projects.

Credit: Aaron Meshon

"Some of the Russian-language teachers actually tossed out their textbooks in favor of the authentic interaction we were engaged in," said Ed Gragert, iEARN's executive director. "It's better to present something written by a student, because it's going to be read by a real student."

Gragert calls for more student travel to other countries; it may not build immediate fluency, but that kind of firsthand experience provides critical incentive to learn. As students make friends in other countries, they want to improve their language skills. "If I had my way, everyone in the U.S. would have this kind of experience," he says. But he also notes that at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per student, "that's obviously too expensive."

Technology, however, is bridging the gap left by lack of funds by providing affordable new tools that create easy international interactions. Take, for example, the following online services: Elluminate is a conferencing platform that enables schools to collaborate on projects together. Teachers have used Elluminate's videoconferencing technology for a wide range of educational applications, from teacher training to debate competitions to geography lessons. But it's particularly valuable with international connections because it can work over a dial-up connection, the kind still prevalent in the developing world, according to iEARN's Lisa Jobson.

Educators also use VoiceThread, which provides an online space where teachers and students can post dialogue, photos, videos, and audio files that can be retrieved by anyone, anywhere. One person can post a photo or video, for example, and others can add voice or text comments to the item. The basic version of the service is free, and for a small subscription fee, educators can add student email accounts, extra storage, and management tools.

For simple exchanges, there's ePals, a social network for K–12 students: Think online pen pals and digital storytelling. Because ePals was built for schools, it offers secure email and blog tools. Although it is not a specialized language tool -- its Web site deals more with projects on global warming, natural disasters, weather, water, and digital storytelling -- it does help connect thousands of classrooms in 200 countries.

Though some services aren't built specifically for schools, teachers use them in classrooms because of their easy accessibility. The Audacity application allows you to store, edit, and share audio files. Skype and other services make online video chats a breeze. Of course, real-time interactions can be a challenge: Time differences mean students in the U.S. are sleeping while their Korean counterparts are in school, and vice versa. But teachers occasionally organize a Skype chat as a treat at the end of a semester.

Almerinda Garibaldi, who oversees some programs in Brazil for iEarn, says teachers who use these programs are excited by the possibilities for breaking down borders. Garibaldi vividly recalls one teacher, Valda Costa e Silva, telling her "there is no doubt that the use of technologies became the shortest way to overcome borders between the countries and peoples. Now we are here, but we can also be there; everywhere, without limits."

Beyond technology, many other programs are facilitating global encounters. Some initiatives are bringing native speakers from abroad to the U.S. The Chinese ministry sends hundreds of native speakers to America through a program called Hanban to teach the language in Confucius Institutes. These schools are dedicated to Chinese language instruction. In addition, a number of exchange programs work with Hanban to send teachers, administrators, and students to China to supplement the language learning that's happening in the classroom.

Credit: Aaron Meshon

The State Department's National Security Language Initiative provides scholarships for American teens to go overseas for a summer, a semester, or an academic year to get immersed in a language and a culture. "Kids will learn a language better if they have to function in it every day," Gragert notes.

Apart from government organizations, private institutions are also on the task. The Asia Society, for instance, runs 18 schools for more than 4,000 predominantly low-income and minority students. The schools emphasize global themes and proficiency in at least one foreign language (or a world language, as it's increasingly being called in educational circles). The organization also works with mainstream high schools to promote languages, particularly Asian languages, according to Vivien Stewart, vice president of education programs at the Asia Society.

It's a big shift from the backlash that bilingual education suffered several years ago when the issue became entangled with immigration politics and states like California essentially voted it out. Voters resented the notion of immigrants coming to American public schools and being taught in their native language. Yet those students are now getting more of an immersion experience in English, while English-speaking parents are sending their children to schools where lessons are taught in Mandarin, Japanese, or another world language.

Schools that offer language classes are immediately oversubscribed, according to Stewart. Joanne Wright exemplifies the urgency felt by some parents to expose their children to foreign languages. Her children are in their second year at the public Richmond Elementary School, a Japanese immersion program in Portland, Oregon.

"We bought into the idea that learning a second language would make our children better thinkers," she says. "Also, I want my kids to value a culture other than their own. I want them to be exposed to an entirely different way of being -- different values, different foods. They even do math differently."

The first graders spend half the day learning in Japanese and the other half in English, and most subjects are taught in both languages. Although neither of the Wright parents speak Japanese, the children are devouring the language, much to their parents' delight.

On The Precipice

Although this enthusiasm has been a boon for world-language education, these offerings, already relatively slim in the U.S. when compared with other countries, actually slipped in recent years, particularly in the most critical elementary school and middle school years. Budget cuts and the demands of No Child Left Behind have made language education an easy target, according to Nancy Rhodes of the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL).

"What we've seen over the last 10 years is pretty devastating," Rhodes reports. The number of elementary schools offering foreign-language instruction dropped from 31 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008, and the number of middle schools dropped from 75 percent to 58 percent in the same period, according to a study by CAL and Westat, a research organization. Even though 91 percent of high schools offer foreign languages, only 46 percent of students actually take them.

The challenges are multifold. "No Child Left Behind established an overemphasis on reading and math and took away time from the study of languages," says Shuhan Wang, deputy director of the National Foreign Languages Center at the University of Maryland. Because it's not an area being assessed in testing, Wang explains, schools don't teach foreign languages as much.

Compounding the problem is the fact that schools that want to offer a foreign language have trouble finding qualified teachers. Nearly 31 percent of the schools in the CAL survey have some uncertified language teachers. Thirty-six states and Washington, DC, have identified a shortage of world-language teachers, according to Wang.

Inequities also abound. The CAL study found that rural and poor urban schools don't get nearly the world-language offerings that suburban schools do and that while 51 percent of private elementary schools offer language classes, only 15 percent of public schools do.

"People talk about their concern that the U.S. is behind other countries in math and science, but we are much further behind the rest of the industrialized world in language learning than we are in math and science," says the Asia Society's Stewart. "In almost every country, it's compulsory. In almost all of them, it starts in kindergarten. In almost all of them, it goes on for several years. That's a huge difference."

Credit: Aaron Meshon

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills argues that the U.S. must do a better job of teaching students key world languages to help them succeed in the 21st-century economy. The organization cites Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard's call for people with "T-shaped skills" -- those who speak two or more languages and can "see the world from two or more different perspectives." They have "the cognitive diversity needed to formulate innovative solutions to complex problems."

That's right: Learning languages boosts brain development. Studies have shown that child bilingualism helps kids to expand their parameters of language and their cognitive ability, says Wang. "They can see that a thing could be called table or mesa or zhuozi in different languages. They have an open mind and more empathy, and they are constantly trying to make a connection. The brain is about connectivism. They are always trying to analyze and compare so they can plug in new information."

Credit: Aaron Meshon

Children who speak only one language may get frustrated with problems that are not easily solved, she notes. But children who speak two or more often seek a new route in attacking the problem.

Changing Priorities

Over the years, Americans haven't considered foreign-language education a priority because it seemed like everyone else learned English, the world's most widely spoken language. It's taught in schools in more than 100 countries and is spoken by 1.5 billion people -- one-fourth of the world's population, according to scholar David Crystal. Adds Stewart, "Because the U.S. has been dominant economically, we felt we could dictate to the world on our terms."

But that scenario has changed drastically. As the economy grows in China and India and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East -- to say nothing of the increasing focus on security after the attacks of September 11 -- studying world languages is becoming a priority. The U.S. State Department's National Security Language Initiative encourages the study of seven languages that are rarely taught in the U.S.: Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Korean, Farsi, and Turkish.

But European languages are still valued. Though some have minimized French, for example, the language is spoken in many countries, especially in Africa. And with the U.S. Census Bureau survey counting 34.5 million people speaking Spanish at home, that language is increasingly important domestically.

New programs and classroom innovations that emphasize immersion in culture are boosting the effort. Teachers are beginning to reward students for being able to function in a language, according to Marty Abbott with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. National standards and state frameworks have all grown out of the idea of encouraging conversation. "We're trying to change the way we assess and teach students," she explains.

In fact, some of the greatest obstacles to world-language education are parents who recall their own miserable experiences. Many Americans were introduced to foreign languages in middle school or high school classes that emphasized conjugation of verbs and other dull grammatical tasks rather than relevant communication skills. "Language teaching in the U.S. has been ineffective," Stewart says. "We start it at the wrong age. Teacher skills are not great. There's a focus on grammar and translation." The result: "Adults who took three years of French don't speak a word," she states.

But the trend toward competency and away from conjugation is helping create a new generation of language learners, one that gains real-world skills with many practical applications.

The Asia Society works toward what Stewart calls "the need for students to graduate from high school college-ready and globally confident. In our shorthand term, the 21st century will be very different than the 20th."

Adds Stewart: "Every issue you can name -- economics, public health, police work, climate change -- there are international dimensions to all of them. You have to have an awareness of other cultures. You can't know about all of them. You can't speak all languages. But languages are going to be important, and we are going to need to continue to learn about them."

Dan Fost is a San Francisco–based freelance writer and the author of a book about baseball called Giants Past and Present, from MVP press.

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