Steve Leveen’s Spanish test
What older generations may remember from their language classes—drills of verb conjugations, constant corrections of grammar and sentence structure—is not what they’ll find in many global-language classes today.
What we’ll hear in “Not Your Uncle’s Language Class,” Episode 31 of the America the Bilingual podcast, may shock many of us old-schoolers:
Global-language teachers are no longer looking for perfection from their students!
A new and not-so-perfect order
At the 2017 national conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Steve talked with nine educators about this noteworthy change in teaching methods. (Check out their photos and credentials below to know who’s who.)
Here’s how the conversation went:
“People that have to be perfect are less likely to say something—because they might not be perfect,” Aviva pointed out. But if students no longer have to be perfect in their pluperfects and present perfects, what is the focus now in language classrooms?
“Proficiency is the main goal,” Desa explained. “It means that grammar takes a different role. It’s not that you don’t want to be correct when you speak. But that’s not the major concern. The major concern is that you be able to communicate with someone else.”
Proficiency, then, has replaced perfection. Put another way: “You are teaching things for a purpose in the real world,” said Laura.
Susan provided this example:
“I want you as my student to be able to go to the pharmacy and get what you need in Mexico. Even if you don’t know the name of what you need, you can talk about the desired impact of that medication.”
Educators are already seeing a positive outcome from this new focus.
“When we taught in more traditional manners, people felt like they couldn’t do it, like they were too dumb to do language, and that gave them a negative feeling about languages in general,” said Carrie. “But as we’re graduating more and more students who have positive feelings about language, I think it’s just going to make the bilingual schools explode.”
America the Bilingual has filed a couple reports on bilingual, or dual-language, schools in previous podcasts, so we were encouraged to hear that even more infrastructure is in the works to support them. Any subject can be taught in a dual language school—including the STEM subjects that concern so many educators and parents.
In fact, Lisa would argue that global languages are a component of STEM. “Languages are that T [in the STEM acronym]. We are a technical skill. So we’re part of STEM,” she maintains. “You’ve got to have that skill in language to be able to go forward and use it in different applications.”
From communication comes cultural understanding
The proficiency-over-perfection approach helps students take the language with them after they leave their classes.
“Communication makes it real and authentic to the students,” Toni said. “They feel like this is a purpose and they can use it outside of the classroom. In the 21st century, that’s essential.”
And it goes beyond simply communicating effectively, as important as that is.
“We [Americans] want to be a player on the world stage. We want to be able to not just communicate but understand different cultures,” said Bill. “Learning a language is more than just communicating in the language. It’s also learning about the cultures, the traditions of people. That’s how you learn to work with people and deal with people around the world.”
Better language classes will lead to a more bilingual America, as more proficient language students graduate, and they, in turn, create a virtuous cycle of bilingualism.
“I tell teachers all the time: every time a student leaves your classroom, they’re leaving with the understanding of what language learning is supposed to be like,” said Thomas. “And those students become department chairs, principals, politicians.”
In other words: leaders who can help bring America into the world, and the world into America.