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Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Educational Change/Foreign Languages

< Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education‎ | Educational Change
How should foreign languages be taught?
A nation, like a person, has a mind…that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and needs of its neighbors-all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.

—Franklin Roosevelt, [1]

“I had two years of German in High School, but I don’t remember any of it”. This is one of the statements I hear often from people, after I tell them that I teach German. Growing up in Germany, it was common for people to speak fluently at least one other language. The motivation to learn another language is mainly the close proximity to other European countries and the cultural influence through immigrants from all over the world. Foremost, foreign languages are taught already in elementary school. American schools encounter many constraints when it comes to maintaining an effective foreign language program. The motivation for instituting foreign language programs and learning a variety of languages are influenced by events throughout history, mainly World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq wars, and the terrorism attack of 9/11. In addition, the US government has set goals to improve global competitiveness in the world's markets by improving our foreign language education in the United States and our national security, especially after 9/11.




Shrum and Glisan point out that in recent years foreign language education has made significant changes especially for "language teachers in terms of standards for teacher candidates, beginning teachers, and more accomplished teachers. An interest in standards in the academic disciplines was sparked by an initiative of the George H. W. Bush administration and was continued under the Goals 2000 initiative of the Clinton Administration. Visionary Goals 2000 (1994) described the competence that all students should demonstrate in challenging subject matter….including foreign languages. With its inclusion in Goals 2000 foreign language was recognized as part of the K-12 core curriculum in the United States” which eventually resulted in the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century." (Shrum and Glisan, 44)

Setting National GoalsEdit

The NSLI has three broad goals:

  • Expand the number of Americans mastering critical need languages and start at a younger age
  • Increase the number of advanced-level speakers of foreign languages, with an emphasis on critical needs languages
  • Increase the number of foreign language teachers and the resources for them

According to these goals set by President Bush, the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) will dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi, and others through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the workforce. An essential component of U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world is the ability to engage foreign governments and peoples, especially in critical regions, to encourage reform, promote understanding, convey respect for other cultures and provide an opportunity to learn more about our country and its citizens. To do this, we must be able to communicate in other languages, a challenge for which we are unprepared. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, to the extent that foreign language learning improves a student’s cognitive and academic performance, it goes hand in glove with the No Child Left Behind goal of ensuring high student outcomes for all children… Foreign language should not be seen as an “add-on” but rather, foreign languages should be integrated into the curriculum. [2]

In VirginiaEdit

Many studies confirm the benefits and effects of learning foreign languages, specifically on learning them early in the child’s development.

Learning a second language at an early age...

  • Has a positive effect on intellectual growth.
  • Enriches and enhances a child's mental development.
  • Leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening.
  • Improves a child's understanding of his or her native language.
  • Gives a child the ability to communicate with people he or she would otherwise not have had the chance to know.
  • Opens the door to other cultures and helps the child understand and appreciate people from other countries.
  • Gives the child a head start in language requirements for college.
  • Increases job opportunities in many careers in which knowing another language is a real asset. [3]
More on Language Instruction Models at Language immersion

Selected Virginia schools offer a variety of foreign language programs which are based on the most recent foreign language teaching methods. For example, the Stafford County School Division offers two types of elementary school foreign language instruction.

FLEX (Foreign Language Exploratory) program. Every elementary school offers an after-school language program. While the majority of schools offer Spanish, some schools also offer French, German, Japanese or American Sign Language.

FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School--Sequential study). [4]

Partial immersion program: a means of acquiring a foreign language through content matter instruction. The uniqueness of an immersion program is that the foreign language is not taught as a subject. In Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), students learn mathematics, science, and health through the medium of a foreign language (French, German, Japanese or Spanish). Half the school day is spent learning in the foreign language.

Two-way immersion programs integrate language minority and language majority students, providing instruction in both English and the native language of the language minority students. [5]

A Long Way to GoEdit

Are we there yet?Edit

No. Although foreign language instruction has made great strides in offering different models of instruction and approved assessment, we still need to develop higher proficiency goals to offer better teacher training, to improve K-12 articulation, and to offer more of a variety of languages. [6]

The U.S. lacks the language resources (in languages other than English) to meet its various goals and many members of our society do not experience the benefits that proficiency in multiple languages and cultures can bring. Students enter U.S. schools with native-like proficiency in a language other than English (their heritage language) and are not encouraged to develop high levels of proficiency in their native language while also mastering English. [7]

Major problemsEdit

Lack of variety of Languages and ExposureEdit

More than 200 million children in China are studying English, a compulsory subject for all Chinese primary school students. By comparison, only about 24,000 of approximately 54 million elementary and secondary school children in the United States are studying Chinese. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, only 44% of American high school students are enrolled in foreign language classes... Of those students, 69% are enrolled in Spanish and 18% in French. Less than 1% of American high school students combined study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Russian or Urdu. Less than 8% of United States undergraduates take foreign language courses, and less than 2% study abroad in any given year. Foreign language degrees account for only 1% of undergraduate degrees conferred in the United States. [8]

Unqualified TeachersEdit

Reagan and Osborn point out that it is somewhat puzzling to imagine a language being taught by someone who does not speak it well-and yet in all too many cases, that is in fact the case. "Clearly one must know a subject in order to teach it effectively. In the context of foreign language education, this means that the foreign language teacher should have achieved a high degree of competence in the target language."(Reagan and Osborn, 19)

What can be done?Edit

According to the Center of Applied Linguistics, the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in foreign language instruction and speaking abilities. What can the U.S. learn from other countries?

Start language education early.

The United States needs a national commitment to elementary school language teaching for all children... In particular, we need to look to countries like ours that have a single official or national language but that are nonetheless succeeding in developing citizens with bilingual or multilingual proficiency.

Conduct long-term research.

The U.S. education system can benefit greatly from the development of a long-term research agenda that incorporates longitudinal studies of a variety of early language learning models of instruction.

Provide stronger leadership.

A stronger and more coherent government-wide effort is needed to create the atmosphere and opportunity to improve language education in the United States.

Identify how technology can improve language instruction.

We need specific research on how technology can best be used to increase students' proficiency in other languages.

Improve teacher education.

The United States needs to conduct a more in-depth investigation into how some countries are recruiting high-caliber students into teaching and providing top quality in-service and pre-service training. Develop appropriate language assessments. The effective assessment practices used in other countries are worth studying given the salience of assessment in U. S. education.

Designate foreign language as a core subject.

In districts and schools in the United States where foreign language study is part of the core curriculum, there is a more rigorous approach to curriculum development, professional development, and assessment. Designating foreign language study as a core subject is essential for a successful program.

Take advantage of the sociolinguistic context.'

American educators need to take advantage of the sociolinguistic context in which we live by promoting the learning of languages spoken by indigenous groups and by immigrants and refugees in this country, as well as by our neighbors in Canada and Mexico. [9]


According to the Center of Applied Linguistics, compared to students in much of the world, U.S. students lag far behind in their foreign language capabilities….The United States can learn a great deal by studying these successes and using the information to implement practices and policies that will support the development of better foreign language education and a higher level of foreign language proficiency among our citizens.

Deficits in foreign language learning and teaching negatively affect our national security, diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence communities and cultural understanding. It prevents us from effectively communicating in foreign media environments, hurts counter-terrorism efforts, and hamstrings our capacity to work with people and governments in post-conflict zones and to promote mutual understanding. Our business competitiveness is hampered in making effective contacts and adding new markets overseas. Fact Sheet Office of the Spokesman, Washington, DC, January 5, 2006 National Security Language Initiative

Multiple Choice QuestionsEdit

Click to reveal the answer.

Janet would receive a scholarship if she studies a critical need language. Which language would she most likely study to receive the critical need scholarship?
A. German
B. French
C. Chinese
D. Spanish

C. Chinese

John goes to a public school in Virginia. After school he learns Spanish. In which foreign language program is John involved?
C. Two-Way Immersion
D. Critical Language Program


Isabella is from Peru and does not speak English. According to the foreign language goals, which school program would benefit her most?
A. She should participate in the two-way immersion program.
B. She should not participate in a language program, because she already speaks a foreign language.
C. She should get private tutoring in English.
D. She should enter a Spanish total immersion program.

A. She should participate in the two-way immersion program.

Phillip is enrolled in a partial German immersion program which starts in first grade. Studies have shown that he would
A. develop more flexibility in thinking, develop a greater sensitivity to language, and develop a better ear for listening.
B. improve his understanding of English.
C. increase his ability to communicate with people he or she would otherwise not have had the chance to know.
D. All of the above.

D. All of the above.

According to the Center of Applied Linguistics,
A. elementary foreign language education in the U.S. is comparable with other countries.
B. the majority of U.S. high schools students are enrolled in a foreign language program
C. less than 1% of American high school students combined study a critical need language.
D. half of the students at the undergraduate level study a foreign language

C. less than 1% of American high school students combined study a critical need language.

Essay QuestionEdit

Click to reveal a sample response.

President Bush has proposed to accomplish his Foreign Language goals of greater global competitiveness and national security by increasing funding for study abroad, elementary language programs, teacher training etc. Where do you think governmental funding could make the most impact? Why? How?

Government funding would make the most impact in teacher training. If all teachers were trained in at least one more language and the cultures of several countries, it could benefit all students in the U.S. It is best to start already during the teacher training program and expand the training to accomplished teachers. Most teachers are confronted every day with issues of multiculturalism within their own class room. Therefore, I would think it would be necessary to train all teachers on how to deal with students from different countries. It should be mandatory for foreign language teachers to study abroad in order to get fully immersed into the culture.

I discovered that some school systems hire unqualified teachers because they lack the resources to interview the candidate in the foreign language they teach, especially when it comes to languages which are not represented across the school system. I have encountered German language teachers who teach five high school levels of German for years and can not hold a normal conversation in German. Furthermore, one teacher had not visited a German-speaking country in 20 years.

Teachers of Foreign Languages need constant training and opportunities to attend workshops or exchanges in foreign countries, where they can compare teaching strategies with teachers from other countries.