Policy briefing examines "Language Learning for a Global Age," introduces language learning bill

“If you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head,” Nelson Mandela once said. “If you speak to him in his own language, you speak to his heart.”

Dr. Dan Davidson, president and co-founder of the American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS, recalled these famous words yesterday at a policy briefing on “Language Learning for a Global Age” in Washington, DC. Davidson then summed up the principal problem with language teaching and learning in the U.S. by asserting, “We aren’t teaching our students to speak to hearts.”

The many presenters at this policy briefing, sponsored by a coalition of five organizations—the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning, the National Education Association (NEA), the Committee for Economic Development (CED), the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), and the Joint National Committee on Languages (JNCL)—focused on the fact that Americans lag far behind their global peers in foreign language skills, and strongly argued that this trend must be reversed for two principal reasons:

  1. Language learning creates better students. Studying a foreign language not only provides students with marketable and increasingly important skills, but it also makes them better students by improving their cognitive development, including what John Wilson, Executive Director of NEA, termed as the “Four Cs”: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and cultural awareness. “Language learning is like broccoli: it’s a super food,” said Jean Adilifu, Assistant Principal at the Medgar Evers College Prep School in Brooklyn, which runs an innovative language program. “It helps students excel in other subjects as well.”
  2. Language learning will be an essential part of future success, both for individual Americans and the U.S. As all sectors internationalize, language proficiency and cultural competency will be integral parts of nearly every job and career. Many more Americans must have the capability to speak numerous languages in order for the U.S. to succeed in government, diplomacy, business, research, the arts, etc. As Charlie Kolb, President of CED, put it, language learning isn’t just “educational icing on the cake;” rather, it provides a competitive advantage for the United States. [Note: CED released a report in 2006 on the importance of language learning for U.S. economic and national security.]

The briefing also introduced a very tangible step being taken in Washington to help move language learning to the forefront of education policy: Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) were on hand to speak about a piece of legislation they will introduce in Congress with Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) in the coming weeks: the “Excellence and Innovation in Language Learning Act.” The bill would authorize $400 million in funding for FY 2011 for the teaching of foreign languages to K-12 students. The sponsoring Representatives hope the bill will become part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or “No Child Left Behind.” As Rep. Tonko said, “The next generation must not follow the globe, but shape it.” Michele Dunne, a former diplomat and 30-year student of Arabic, made the same point in a slightly different way: Americans must “not just be outside observers, but full participants” in global affairs.

Davidson argued that for Americans to take that stride into full global participation, it is important to debunk four myths regarding language study:

Myth #1: They speak English, so we don’t need to study their language.
Myth #2: Anyone can basically pick up any language at any point.
Myth #3: U.S. students and citizens are not good foreign language students.
Myth #4: Even if Americans do achieve some language ability, it’s not good enough to be used in professional or diplomatic situations.

Davidson noted that his colleagues had sufficiently debunked the first two myths throughout the briefing: number 1 is clearly a poor business and diplomatic strategy, while number 2 is “foolish,” wishful thinking: for language study to be most effective, it must begin early and it cannot be rushed. (Kolb argued that America’s fixation on “short-termism”—on wanting results and wanting them now—inhibits our ability to properly invest in long term language study.)

Davidson then set about debunking myths three and four by pointing to data in his recently published article on language learning and study abroad in the spring 2010 edition of Foreign Language Annals. Davidson summarized the data on American Russian language students presented in his article, noting that, in short, “if the input is strong, the output is strong.” For example, those students who entered their language learning experience in Russia as a Level 1 or below (elementary proficiency) on the CTFL/Interagency Language Roundtable scale generally exited their program as a Level 2 (limited working proficiency)—a “fine” gain, as Davidson characterized it, but “not nearly good enough.”

Those students who entered their study abroad experience with a higher level of ability, however—such as a 1+ or a 2+—exited their program showing dramatic results: improvements to Level 3 and 3+ (professional working proficiency) and Level 4 (full professional proficiency). Some students even achieved Level 4+ (near native proficiency), which Davidson said was practically unheard of.

For Davidson, these data illustrate that Myths 3 and 4 are patently untrue: Americans certainly can learn foreign languages, and they can undoubtedly achieve professional and even native-level fluency. The key, though, is to give students the proper tools to succeed. Strengthen the “input” by beginning language training as early as possible and improving foreign language teaching capabilities, and the “output” will follow suit.

Note: Also see Education Week’s coverage of the briefing.