Monthly Archives: September 2010

Foreign Language Cuts Hurting Students

A concerned Louisiana resident shares his concerns about the state of Lousiana school’s foreign language instruction in The News, September 26, 2010.  Thank you, Mr. Fandal, for pointing out the dangers of cutting foreign language classes in schools!

Everyone is aware of the current budgetary crisis in Louisiana and its consequences for education in the state. What may have gone unnoticed is the damage that is being done to foreign language education in Louisiana. From the elementary to the university level, cuts have eliminated or reduced language programs. Parents, students and graduates recently had to rally in support of the highly successful immersion programs slated to be eliminated in Calcasieu Parish. Universities like LSU and Southeastern are dropping relatively inexpensive language programs in the name of budget cuts.

Language skills are a necessity for the future success of this global generation. The Louisiana Foreign Language Teachers Association asks Louisiana citizens to consider how these widespread trends are closing doors of opportunity for our children. Louisiana students will become the tourists in future economies, dependent upon those who have better global skills to meet commercial and security needs. The future does not belong to translating machines or to outsourced services. The U.S. must be able to depend on its own people. It is shortsighted to limit students and to discourage the development of language skills by reducing the availability of well-articulated programs.

All of Louisiana faces dire consequences from the cuts to education, but the magnitude of the cuts to foreign language programs will cripple progress for a long time to come. Like the parents, students, and citizens of Calcasieu Parish, the citizens of Louisiana need to rally to support our important investments in language education.

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Lost Language Uncovered in Peru

See what happens when languages aren’t learned by others!  Story by Emily Schmall from Reuters/Yahoo, September 24, 2010:

Archaeologists say scrawl on the back of a letter recovered from a 17th century dig site reveals a previously unknown language spoken by indigenous peoples in northern Peru.

A team of international archaeologists found the letter under a pile of adobe bricks in a collapsed church complex near Trujillo, 347 miles (560 km) north of Lima. The complex had been inhabited by Dominican friars for two centuries.

“Our investigations determined that this piece of paper records a number system in a language that has been lost for hundreds of years,” Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, told Reuters.

A photograph of the letter recently released by archaeologists shows a column of numbers written in Spanish and translated into a language that scholars say is now extinct.

“We discovered a language no one has seen or heard since the 16th or 17th century,” Quilter said, adding that the language appears to have been influenced by Quechua, an ancient tongue still spoken by millions of people across the Andes.

He said it could also be the written version of a language colonial-era Spaniards referred to in historical writings as pescadora, for the fishermen on Peru’s northern coast who spoke it.

So far no record of the pescadora language has been found.

The letter, buried in the ruins of the Magdalena de Cao Viejo church at the El Brujo Archaeological Complex in northern Peru, was discovered in 2008.

But Quilter said archaeologists decided to keep their discovery secret until the research showing evidence of the lost language was published this month in the journal American Anthropologist.

“I think a lot of people don’t realise how many languages were spoken in pre-contact times,” Quilter said. “Linguistically, the relationship between the Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous was very complex.”

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Illinois Foreign Language Teacher Pleads to Keep Program

Why do teachers of foreign languages have to beg for their programs to be saved?! Outrageous! But here’s the story by Terry Dean from  Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, August 31, 2010:

Dawn Fogle Deaton, a Whittier Elementary School teacher and team leader in the FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) program, urged the District 97 school board not to cut her program in light of the district’s current financial struggles.

Deaton spoke at the Aug. 24 school board meeting and was noticeably upset.

The FLES program is among the proposed cuts the district will explore if a planned 2011 operating fund referendum fails next spring. The district in June proposed $2.6 million in cuts that likely wouldn’t take effect until the 2011-2012 school year. Other proposed reductions include staff cuts in administration and to media specialists.

The FLES program is also on the list, a savings of roughly $627,000 in total salary with the elimination of its nine teachers. The district has made no decisions, however, in cutting any programs.

Deaton maintained that there were no communications with her or other FLES teachers prior to a June 22 e-mail from the district announcing the reductions. She said she didn’t see that communication until days later and was alerted by her team about it. Administration contends that discussions took place over months with various departments before these proposed reductions were announced.

Deaton described her reaction as “livid, disillusioned and disheartened” after reading the e-mail.

Along with the cuts themselves, Deaton was equally disturbed by how and when that was communicated to staff.

Administration and board members have insisted that if anyone wants something pulled from the list to suggest an alternative reduction with a comparable level of savings.

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Funny Youtube Foreign Language Video

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Headstart Language Program for Soldiers

I guess I missed this article (from 2009) about teaching soldiers, who are deployed to the Afghanistan and Iraq, the native languages of the region.  Learning the foreign languages of the native populations is a must if the U.S. is to succeed in that area.  Best of all, it should allow soldiers and natives the opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures and improve relations.

The article is by C. Todd Lopez, “Language Program gives soldiers head start on deployment,” Infantry Magazine (Jan-Feb 2009):

The Defense Language Institute has developed a “Headstart” program to help deploying troops gain skills in Arabic, Pashto and Dari–languages spoken in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With conflicts ongoing in these two nations, there’s a need for at least some Soldiers to have knowledge of the languages spoken there. A recent study by the House Armed Services Committee highlighted the need for increased language capability in the armed forces.

“Only a small part of today’s military is proficient in a foreign language and until recently there has been no comprehensive, systematic approach to develop cultural members wrote in their report.

The Defense Language Institute’s Headstart program is one path that can help Soldiers develop language skills. Headstart is a computer-based, self-directed language learning program aimed at military members getting ready to deploy. The program offers lessons in five languages: Daft, Pashto, Persian Farsi, Mandarin Chinese, and the dialect of Arabic used in Iraq.

The self-guided program takes between 80 to 100 hours to complete. After completing the course, Soldiers should be able to hit the ground in a new country with enough language skills to conduct business and have limited communication with civilians in the local language, according to the DLI commandant.

“You’d be able to take care of the survival-needs level of speaking requirements,” said COL Sue Ann Sandusky, commandant of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. “Even effectively conduct conversations and ask questions about a broad range of topics and understand a significant amount of the answers coming back. You’d certainly be able to communicate if you worked through the program.”

COL Sandusky said Headstart begins like every language program, in that all new language learners will need to learn numbers, colors, quantities, key verbs and key verb constructs. But the Headstart language program is designed primarily for military members on military missions so the program is designed from that perspective.

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Government agencies earn failing grades in foreign languages

It’s the same old story — very few people in key government agencies are proficient in important world languages.  When will this change?!  And, can technology really help fill in the gaps?

Amber Corrin, “DOD, DHS earn failing grades in foreign language,” Federal Computer Week, September 10, 2010:

Do you speak Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Pashto or Urdu? No? Neither do an alarmingly high percentage of troops deployed to the Middle East and southwest Asia, home to languages that local residents but few U.S. warfighters speak.

Far too few, according to the Government Accountability Office, which recently released a report that underscores the woeful foreign-language capabilities of the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

It’s more than just a matter of inconvenience. During a recent congressional hearing, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said the lack of foreign-language skills could be a threat to national security.

Industry has stepped up to try to fill the skills gap by developing technologies that they tout as solutions to the language barrier. But when it comes to rebuilding war-torn towns and villages, training local police forces, and administering humanitarian aid, will a handheld device or database solve the problem?

“It is a Band-Aid,” said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank. “But 10 years ago, did we ever think we’d be invading Afghanistan? Did we think we’d be in Pakistan?”

In other words: Training takes time — more time than, say, a tool that scans and translates documents for intelligence purposes.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for a problem that is more deeply rooted than it appears. The issue is more than just a dearth of speakers of these languages; there are systematic flaws behind the language gap.

According to the GAO report, DOD’s strategy for alleviating the language problem has holes. Funding plans are splintered, and needs, requirements and existing capabilities are poorly understood “due to the lack of an agreed-upon way to assess and validate these skills,” the report states.

GAO auditors said DOD’s efforts to meet the language requirements “had yielded some results but had not closed the persistent gaps in foreign language-proficient staff and reflected, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach.”

The report also hammers home the implications of failing to address the language shortfalls.

“The lack of foreign language capability at some agencies, including DOD and [the State Department], [has] resulted in backlogs in translation of intelligence documents and other information and adversely affected agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts,” the report states.

That information backlog is the target of industry systems such as NovoDynamics’ optical character-recognition tool, used in the military’s Document and Media Exploitation program for identifying, collecting and analyzing enemy documents and media.

“It’s easy to collect the dots. Connecting the dots is the challenge,” said Mike Yeagley, director of global government sales at NovoDynamics. “The solution is going to be a hybrid between expert linguists and technology that triages and translates enormous amounts of data. It’s not realistic to expect humans to do all the translating.”

Korb agreed that technology can provide tools for bridging the language gap. “You have to take advantage of the technology in the short term,” he said. “In the long term, you need the Defense Language Institute, education and training. But in the short term, technologies like optical character recognition help keep the problem from getting worse.”

Of course, translation technologies are far from perfect.

In a 2008 white paper titled “Can Machine Translation Really Help the Department of Defense?” Nicholas Bemish, senior human language technology adviser at the Defense Intelligence Agency, considers some of the challenges posed by technology, including DOD’s notorious cultural issues with implementing new tools.

“Researchers will say that finding the correct algorithm and developing the tool is significant, but I have to submit that talking someone into using something new and ‘foreign’ can be even more difficult,” Bemish wrote.

His argument is similar to GAO’s when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of machine translation. “We don’t typically measure the results against bottom-line costs and how much we may save in overall manpower numbers,” he wrote. “A success within DOD can be as simple as a soldier using [a machine translation] tool to break down the cultural barrier when talking to locals on patrol and possibly defusing a dangerous situation.”

That potentially life-saving scenario illustrates why it’s vital for DOD to improve its foreign-language capabilities, with or without cutting-edge technology.

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Virtual Foreign Language Learning, Oh my!

So, saving money that was probably wasted in the first place, means that foreign language teachers will be replaced by DVDs!  Instead of being able to interact with their teachers, students will now try to learn a language such as Spanish from a recording only.  While DVDs can assist in furthering a student’s language ability, it cannot do so by itself, and there is no substitute for having a teacher help a student learn a foreign language.  Yet, many penny-pinching school systems are turning to ‘mechanical’ learning and hoping that nobody will notice the difference! Virtual learning vs. real-time, physical instruction.

Today’s article is about some Morris County Schools that have decided on virtual foreign language learning:   Rob Jennings, “‘Virtual teachers take over world language instruction in several Morris County NJ schools,” September 6, 2010, Daily Record

The new Spanish teachers in the K-8 school district are informed and personable but available only on DVD.

After losing all three elementary school Spanish teachers due to budget cuts last spring, officials turned to “distance learning” to fulfill the world languages curriculum requirement.

The Spanish DVDs did not require additionalmoney in the 2010-11 budget. Assistant Superintendent Deborah Grefe said the DVDs were already included in the district’s subsciption to Discovery Education.

Grefe said the 20-minute virtual lessons will be shown during social studies periods in grades K-5. The program guide reads that teachers, though not necessarily proficient in Spanish, will “make sure students are engaged and are repeating the vocabulary.”

“He’s entertaining. He plays the guitar,” Grefe said.

Amid steep cuts in state aid and a record number of budget defeats last April, many school districts in New Jersey were forced to scale back, eliminate or modify optional programs and services starting with the new school year.

While cuts in courtesy busing and extracurricular activities have drawn much of the public outcry, educators are increasingly concerned about the impact on world language programs — particularly since starting in early childhood is seen as crucial.

World languages have been part of New Jersey’s K-8 core curriculum since the mid-1990s. However, nothing in the content standards specifically requires instruction by an actual teacher.

The state Department of Education does not keep a count of districts utilizing DVDs, but appears to be at least implicitly encouraging the trend — and not just in world languages.

“We have said to the field school districts to look for equivalencies to meet state requirements,” said Beth Auerswald, a DOE spokesman.

“Alternate methods of meeting state standards are common across subjects because of the difficult time we’re in,” Auerswald said.

At least eight school districts in Morris County scaled back their world languages programs for the 2010-11 school year, ranging from reducing the grades taught to virtual instruction.

In Long Hill, the K-8 district eliminated a part-time Spanish teacher at the grades 2-5 Millington School and spent anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000 acquiring a Beth Manners collection featuring CDs and “a whole collection of finger-puppets,” Superintendent Rene Rovtar said.

Rovtar said she is disappointed by the cuts and other reductions but noted the district had no choice.

“This is the outcome of losing $750,000 in state aid and having our budget cut $250,000,” Rovtar said.

Donna M. Farina, president of the Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey, described world language cuts as “the fallout from the budget issues.”

“People have decided that language is expendable … This is very short-sighted,” said Farina, who lives in Bayonne and has taught Russian and French.

Farina said the cutbacks could reverse gains made since world language programs were expanded to the elementary school level. She said she feared that the end result will be that “only an elite few will be well-positioned to take on globally important careers.”

For example, at the private Dwight-Englewood School, where the grades K-5 tutition is $23,800 per year, world language programs continue to thrive.

“We haven’t been affected by the massive cuts across the state,” said Janet Glass, who teachers Spanish in grades 3-5 at the private school.

Glass, named national foreign language teacher of the year in 2008, does not recommend relying on DVDs.

“Kids do pick up vocabulary from videos, but they never master the interactive skills. It’s not to say that comprehension doesn’t take hold, but personal interactive skills is what most families want their kids to master,” Glass said.

Joan Jensen, who teaches French at Chatham Middle School, agreed that DVDs are a poor substitute. “For me, the key element is the interaction between the students and the teacher. You don’t have that with a computer program. If you don’t have a teacher there to guide or encourage, a lot can be mis-learned, or not learned at all,” Jensen said. “I understand that some districts are forced to do this,” she added, “but it’s just unfortunate.”

In Madison, the K-12 school district lost an elementary school Spanish teacher due to budget cuts but opted to scale back the program to grades 4 and 5, rather than attempting to keep it grades 1-5 via DVDs. “We did consider it,” said Madison Assistant Superintendent Barbara Sargent, adding that officials surveyed “peer districts” in Morris and Somerset counties before deciding against it.

“What you get with a live teacher in the classroom is a great sense of the culture … the history, the intonation,” Sargent said.

In Rockaway Township, Grefe emphasized that the district did not entirely shelve its in-house Spanish instruction. Students at the Copeland Middle School will continue to attend classes taught by an actual teacher. That teacher, Grefe said, worked part-time last year but now has a full-time schedule and will provide some lessons to fifth-graders, enabling them to cross the “bridge” from DVDs to traditional study starting with the sixth grade.

She acknowledged the teachers involved might not know any Spanish, but said the DVDs are designed for just that situation. The only concession — instead of grading students starting in the fifth grade, teachers will merely provide assessments.

Grefe said that a positive development is that the videos will introduce kindergarten students to Spanish, whereas classroom instruction previously did not start until the first grade. DVDs for kindergarten and first grade feature a female instructor using puppets.

She acknowledged that the DVDs do not offer the same level of instruction that, until last June, was provided in person by teachers.

“It’s probably the second-best we can do,” Grefe said. “There’s never a substitute for a live person.”

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