Monthly Archives: July 2012

“Flipped” Classrooms and Foreign Languages

Here’s an interesting approach to teaching foreign languages written by Pedro Maligo in southerneddesk.org, July 27, 2012:

The “flipped classroom” approach is being increasingly talked about in the contexts of new pedagogies, new education delivery systems, and new ways of restructuring institutional budgets. A May 2012 GPB Southern Education Desk piece by Maura Walz on Georgia teachers “flipping” classrooms provides a good explanation of the approach: before each class meeting, the learners study the material and topics that will be covered when class convenes, and the class period then becomes a time for, mainly, putting into practice and implementing what was studied in advance. Usually the learner’s ability to access, explore, and study is helped by the availability of electronically-delivered materials so much so that the “flipped” idea also relates to the use of new technologies in education.

A couple of other examples of the attention being paid to the exploration of alternative (i.e., these days, electronic) means of delivery and their relation to the “flipped” approach are the current Gates Foundation intent to support “breakthrough” projects to deliver education more broadly and to newer constituencies, and higher education administrators’ not-so-subtle messages to their faculties about the need to re-think their missions, publics, classrooms, and delivery modes.

For someone who works in foreign language education like me, the discussion about “flipped classrooms” brings up two interesting aspects. The first is that for the past 20 years, the field of foreign language education has been using an approach called the “communicative approach” which, among other things, prescribes that under the instructor’s supervision and assistance, class time should be used primarily for students to practice skills and to use the information they will have acquired before class. In other words, we have been “flipping” for some time now. Indeed, the communicative approach became the accepted way of teaching foreign languages at approximately the same time that emerging technologies began to allow for the expansion of teaching materials beyond the textbook.

As a result, publishers started developing complex online platforms that, today, incorporate everything from e-textbooks to all types of non-print media. We direct our students to these platforms for a great number of tasks, asking the students to familiarize themselves with (new) topics and to start reviewing the skills that will later be emphatically practiced in class. Combining the communicative approach with the availability of online platforms, we have been making the most of using class time for actual practice; from the students’ perspective, this enhances their perception of the relevance and applicability of what’s being studied.

The second interesting aspect of the “flipped” foreign language methodology is that the communicative approach is still not being used as much in high school environments as it is in higher education. This is interesting because, as Ms. Walz’s piece accurately conveys, we are used to seeing pedagogical innovations bubble up from K-12 to college almost as if the elementary and secondary levels were the R&D and proving grounds where new ideas can and should be attempted. But in the case of foreign language instruction, we have had more success breaking away from the older approach of teaching grammar (and therefore lecturing more than practicing) at the college level than in high school (where most of foreign language education takes place within K-12).

This, in turn, brings up an equally interesting “marketing” implication as we in the foreign languages make great efforts to educate American youth and their counselors and advisors about the need to study world languages. From a marketing perspective, we struggle to dispel the notion that the foreign language classroom is a boring place where grammar is taught under a lecture format. As a result, we end up having to tackle two interconnected issues: the effort to make people see the importance of studying languages and the perception of the boring classroom. And since many of the counselors and advisors did in fact experience the uninteresting “normative” or grammar teaching approach when they themselves took foreign language in high school or college, they carry that perception with them into their current functions and sometimes tend to pass it on to their advisees—usually as a discreet lack of incentive toward foreign languages when it comes to suggesting courses for students to take.

All this considered, the visibility being given to the “flipped” approach is good news for those of us in the foreign languages. As “flipped” is reported to lead to learning experiences which are interesting, engaging, and rewarding, we know that our own “communicative approach” helps make our classrooms be very much like that.

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A Plea for More Foreign Language Learning

The following comments in support of foreign language learning were made by Tiesa M. Graf, President of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association, in boston.com on June 10, 2012:

In many ways Massachusetts is a national leader in education. However, our children have been let down (“Biting in tongues,’’ Globe West, May 17). Our exemplary Foreign Languages Curriculum Framework, published in 1999, called for all students to become proficient in at least one language in addition to English by graduation.

Even at that time, it was understood that foreign language proficiency was an essential career and life skill.

The Foreign Languages Curriculum Frameworks Review Panel was told that MCAS testing of foreign language proficiency would follow. Further, the 2002 report referenced in the Globe’s article clearly outlines a plan of action to lay the groundwork for statewide assessment (page 17, http://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/foreign/report.pdf).

Unfortunately, the recent foreign language enrollment data show that now, fewer students have access to the programming that is outlined in the framework, which calls for language instruction from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12. At the same time, in the past decade, the political and economic reality requires higher levels of proficiency and increased cultural understanding in order to compete with global peers and maintain our national security.

For today’s youth to be competitive in this increasingly global environment, the ability to speak multiple languages is essential. Even those who have no political or international career aspirations will be better equipped to excel in local jobs with additional language skills.

According to the US Department of Commerce, in 2012, more than one in five careers in the United States depends on international trade and commerce.

Though a common excuse of our population’s lack of language skills is “everyone in the world speaks English,” the reality is that 80 percent of the world’s population does not speak English.

The most economical way to ensure that our business people, public servants, armed forces, government and aid workers, and politicians are prepared for the future that faces them is to provide language instruction in K-12 and beyond.

At a US Senate hearing on May 21, “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, director general of the US Department of State, reported that the Department of Defense estimates it costs $250,000 per person to train employees for positions requiring proficiency in a foreign language.

Foreign language programming in public schools is consistently cut so that more remediation courses can be provided for the MCAS-tested subject areas.

The irony is that foreign language learning supports improved performance in those very areas. Research shows that foreign language study increases creativity and analytical thinking, and improves standardized test scores, among many other benefits.

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, (the “benefits accrue with instruction that is continuous throughout the school year, connected grade to grade, and more frequent than twice per week, adding up to at least 90 minutes per week, at both the elementary and middle school levels.”

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education needs to provide the leadership to districts to make our model framework the reality that it was intended to be more than a decade ago.

Our very own future depends on their action and support.

Tiesa M. Graf

President, Massachusetts Foreign Language Association

Chairwoman,

South Hadley High School

foreign language department

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Project Glass-Style Eyewear and Foreign Language Translation

What an interesting idea!

Article by Torie Bosch in slate.com, July 25, 2012:

Despite heavy investment from the military, perfect machine translation from one language to another won’t be available any time soon. But those of us who are more interested in chatting briefly with a new acquaintance who doesn’t speak the same language, or just trying to order a sandwich in a foreign country, don’t need polished translations that won’t inadvertently spark military or diplomatic fights.

Enter these glasses, which provide translation—albeit slowly—in the form of subtitles.

Inspired by the still-in-development Project Glass—Google’s foray into augmented-reality eyewear—British DIYer Will Powell created a pair of specs that can display a rough translation during a conversation. Below, Powell and his sister speak in English and Spanish over a chess game. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a beautiful way to show how technology could break down language barriers.

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Ireland and Foreign Language Cuts

The article below was written by Shane P. O’Reilly in http://www.fiannafail.ie, July 23, 2012:

Cavan Councillor Shane P O’Reilly has criticised further cuts in education relating to the MLPSI – Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative which allows children of primary school age to engage in learning foreign languages such as Italian, Spanish, German or French. Currently over 27,000 children, at 550 schools in Ireland enjoy learning through MLPSI which not only lays the foundation for their language learning within the system, it also brings additional benefits, for instance enhanced cognitive skills, exposure to new cultures and learning experiences, as well as enhanced literacy skills. The Fine Gael & Labour Government have abolished the scheme.

Speaking to parents at Billis National School following next Septembers Junior Infants induction morning, Cllr O’Reilly claimed, “Since this initiative was launched in 1998, it has prepared many children to learn foreign languages fluently, adapting them for enhanced educational or professional courses and ultimately careers. Languages assist with integration right across the national school curriculum while also being a valuable tool that allows teachers to address broader issues such as culture, heritage, history and citizenship. What is particularly shocking about this cut is that almost 60% of the teachers teaching it are staff-based, and are therefore of no additional cost to the Department of Education as they are delivering the MLPSI as part of their normal teaching week in the classroom”.

“Ireland is the only EU country which does not have foreign languages as compulsory subjects at primary level, but the MLPSI goes some of the way to dealing with this. It is ironic the decision to end the MLPSI comes at a time when there has never been as much momentum behind the languages agenda. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation recently highlighted the language skills deficit we have in Ireland which is damaging not only indigenous companies wishing to capitalise on export markets but also global multinationals who have their European and international bases in Ireland, particularly hi-tech, pharmaceutical or service related industries” stated Cllr O’Reilly. “Just look at the type of jobs advertised by eBay, Paypal, Google, Cisco and Teva, the vast majority seek second language skills”.

He continued “If Ireland is to truly reach educational excellence and strive to ensure every child gets the best possible chance and career, languages are essential ingredient to this success. St. Kilian’s National School and Billis National School are two schools in my immediate area affected by this cutback. I am now calling on the government TDs for the area to add their voice to the debate and call for these cuts to be reversed. If Ireland is to have a cutting edge advantage in the world, and continue to develop our export-led recovery as regularly highlighted by the government, then second and third languages are of critical importance”.

“Already we are years behind the Barcelona Agreement and the Lisbon Strategy, which called for educational programmes to be in place to facilitate early language learning of at least two foreign languages by 2010 at primary level. If the government foolishly stands over this cut, it erases much of the good work achieved over the past 15 years and we run the risk of diluting our capacity and the capacity of our children to compete in commerce on a global scale” Shane P O’Reilly concluded.

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Shanghai University Wants More Men to Learn Foreign Languages

Here’s a twist. Shanghai International Studies University, known for its foreign language programs, wants to admit more male students because it believes men ultimately are better poised for jobs requiring foreign language skills. Studies have indicated that women are better than men in learning languages but is it right for this Chinese university to discriminate against female enrollment? Would it have made an effort to balance the gender discrepancy had males dominated those programs? Doubtful. The point is that both male and female students should be allowed access to these (and all other university) programs! Everyone who wishes to learn a foreign language for whatever reason must be allowed to do so. No excuses and no discriminatory policies!!

Here’s the article reprinted by shaghaiist.com, July 18, 2012:

You’re a leading tertiary institution where male student admissions are becoming, in your own mind, embarrassingly low. What do you do? Why, engage in a little affirmative action for the boys of course! That’s what Shanghai International Studies University, one of China’s top universities for the learning of foreign languages, has just done. This academic year, it has begun to accept male students with lower entrance exam scores than women for a few non-English majors, including Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, Ukrainian and Russian.

While lawyers and feminists are decrying the university’s blatant gender discrimination, the university says it has good reasons to justify its new policy. Via Shanghai Daily:

“Many firms or organizations are in great need of male workers with a good command of foreign languages to work overseas,” said Wang Binhua, an official with the university’s admissions department.

In some Arabic-speaking countries, people are more accustomed to do business with men instead of women, the university said.

Many firms employ only male graduates majoring in languages spoken by a small number of people for their overseas positions, he said.

“But only a very small number of men are interested in learning foreign languages,” he said. Men account for less than 20 percent of the students at the university.

The imbalanced gender structure also causes trouble for women graduates in the job market while giving men an edge.

To change the situation, the university set up male quota in some majors involving languages spoken by a very small number of people. The policy won the approval of the Ministry of Education.

You’re a leading tertiary institution where male student admissions are becoming, in your own mind, embarrassingly low. What do you do? Why, engage in a little affirmative action for the boys of course! That’s what Shanghai International Studies University, one of China’s top universities for the learning of foreign languages, has just done. This academic year, it has begun to accept male students with lower entrance exam scores than women for a few non-English majors, including Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, Ukrainian and Russian.
While lawyers and feminists are decrying the university’s blatant gender discrimination, the university says it has good reasons to justify its new policy. Via Shanghai Daily:
“Many firms or organizations are in great need of male workers with a good command of foreign languages to work overseas,” said Wang Binhua, an official with the university’s admissions department.
In some Arabic-speaking countries, people are more accustomed to do business with men instead of women, the university said.
Many firms employ only male graduates majoring in languages spoken by a small number of people for their overseas positions, he said.
“But only a very small number of men are interested in learning foreign languages,” he said. Men account for less than 20 percent of the students at the university.
The imbalanced gender structure also causes trouble for women graduates in the job market while giving men an edge.
To change the situation, the university set up male quota in some majors involving languages spoken by a very small number of people. The policy won the approval of the Ministry of Education.

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Learn a Language, Get a Job

The following was written by Settit Beyene for guardian.co.uk, July 19, 2012:

With 48 applications for each graduate job vacancy and 2:1 degrees being handed out faster than free condoms at freshers’ fair, it’s no surprise that students are throwing themselves into internships and voluntary work.

But given the lack of bilingual English graduates, is learning a language an alternative way to stand out?

Clara, a recent graduate who is now working in marketing, puts her job success down to her degree choice – French. “My language skills definitely made job hunting easier. Being able to speak French is a skill that I have over other graduates and being able to deal with international clients is a boost to my company.”

But what about students who are studying different subjects? Given thatonly 38% of Brits speak a foreign language (compared to 56% of Europeans), it’s unlikely there are many polyglots among us.

If you’ve got enough self-motivation, it is possible brush up your language skills in your spare time. There are plenty of free online resources available, and you could even travel in your holidays to practise conversation skills.

But let’s face it, when term gets busy, hobbies drop further down the priority list. Wouldn’t it make more sense for universities to allow undergraduates to study optional, foreign language modules as part of their main degree?

The University of Southampton is just one institution that is already doing so. It’s helping to facilitate language learning and boost employability by offering courses such as “French for marine scientists” and “German language for engineers”.

University is the perfect time to learn a language. Most students have fairly flexible schedules, and universities can offer plenty of support.

You don’t need to be fluent in a second-tongue to boost your chances in the job market. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that74% of employers recruit applicants with conversational ability rather than those who are word perfect. They believe this can “help break the ice, deepen cultural understanding, and open business access to new markets.”

Deborah Till of the University of Nottingham careers service says language is becoming a top priority for companies. “Increasingly, multinational companies value language skills as an added extra when considering applications.” Law firm Eversheds is among those awarding bonus points to applicants with foreign language skills.

Of course, it’s not just the business world that values bilingual employees. So why is it that more universities aren’t offering flexible degrees?

When £9k fees are introduced, perhaps universities will be forced to look more closely at enhancing students’ employment prospects. Language skills are one way to get there.

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A Comment on Shrinking Foreign Language Offerings

More people should join the campaign against the foreign language decline.  Here’s one such advocate, Jennifer Crystle, who published the following article in pbk.org, July 17, 2012.  

It’s common to hear our world referred to as small. However, with a surface area of over 500 million square kilometers and a population of over 7 billion people, our planet is certainly not small. With technology advancing at a record pace and our economy becoming more globalized, the distance between cultures is dwindling down to the space between a person and their Skype camera.  As our world shrinks, a new importance must be granted to our ability to communicate in other languages.

Phi Beta Kappa recognizes and defends the importance of language study. However, many universities’ decisions to cut language programs suggest that there are various leaders in the field of higher education who do not share that view.  In 2008, the University of Southern California said auf wiedersehen to its German program due to low student enrollment, a diminishing faculty, and an administration that didn’t consider foreign language a priority. When students and faculty protested, USC stood by the decision to cut the German major, but kept a minor to stifle the dissent.

Some drew attention to the increasing importance of Asian languages in international affairs to justify USC’s sudden cut to the German program, but a quick glance at the headlines should quell any reservations about the value of studying German. In a CBC News article, “Germany Key To Resolving European Debt Crisis,” Daniel Schwartz argued that Germany has become a central force in world economic affairs. That was a year ago. Since then there is little media discussion of the debt crisis among European nations and the financial concerns of the EU that doesn’t place Germany in the most vital role. Why, then, are major universities agreeing to downsize German, the language spoken by the newest European powerhouse?

A closer look at economic policy and educational funding may provide some answers as to why language programs are suffering more than most other departments at American universities.

While President Obama’s overall budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year features a 2.5 percent increase in Education Department spending, the Title XI program, which helps to support over 150 National Resource Centers (NRCs) dedicated to the study of less commonly taught languages, endured a 40 percent reduction of its funds. In his 2013 budget announcement back in February, Obama announced that Title XI will receive a small increase of $1.7 million. 

Not all universities are affected by Title XI, and, certainly, the decision to cut and condense language programs is ultimately their own. As quoted in Stan Katz’s blog post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Wie Gehts, USC?,” it was USC’s Dean Howard Gillman who ruled to close the “stand-alone” German department. Despite his continued support of giving students a “global perspective,” in his memo to the faculty, he argued that the university’s best option would be to “integrate the field of study into a broader enterprise.”  

After learning of these cuts, I became curious about the history of language programs at my own university, The University of Mary Washington. As a small liberal arts college with just over 4,000 students, the Modern Foreign Languages department is not as large as USC’s; however, to my dismay, I learned that we, too, have experienced cuts to our language programs over the years. Associate Dean and Professor of Spanish Ana Chichester noted that the university’s decision to cut the Russian program in the 90s was seen by faculty as both “premature” and “short-sighted.” While Mary Washington has been able to hold on to the German major, Chichester acknowledged that “the German program has recently been cut to one tenured faculty despite the fact that we have close to two dozen majors in German.”

It would seem that large universities and small colleges alike are withdrawing support for traditional language programs. As it stands now, we have a backwards correlation concerning language study. As the distance between cultures decreases, we need to aspire to anincrease in college language offerings across the United States.
 
Jennifer Crystle is a senior at The University of Mary Washington majoring in English and Spanish. Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


 

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