01August2014

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Training in Less Commonly Taught Languages for the 21st Century

Fallou Ngom, PhD

Associate Professor of Anthropology Director, African Language Program  Boston University
Board Member of the African Studies Association


The distinction between language learning and acquisition in the field of applied linguistics is not fortuitous. While the former is construed as artificial, the latter is understood as natural and deeply embedded in the socialization process. From the times of the Grammar Translation Method, the Silence Way, the Audio-lingual Method, to our era of the Learner-centered Communicative Teaching Approach and Computer-assisted Language Learning (CALL), the central challenge in language teaching and learning remains the same. It is about how to make the artificial learning experience mirror the natural acquisition process so that learners gain knowledge of the language and culture in ways that mirror the native speakers’ experience. Put in another way, the age-old challenge in language teaching and learning has been about how to make the classroom mimic the target language context in which naturally occurring language is entwined with the local culture.

 

Addressing this challenge has not been easy, partly because the target language context cannot be fully replicated in the artificial classroom environment. Though no perfect answer has been found to date, the advances in pedagogy and second language learning have taught us important lessons, including which methods produce good results and which do not. The advances in the field of language learning and acquisition led to the abandonment of the previous approaches in favor of the current Learner-centered Communicative Teaching Approach (grounded in communication and performance) now combined with Computer-assisted Language Learning (CALL) in programs throughout the country. It is widely agreed that its effective use produces results that the previous approaches did not. 

Though it is recognized that the language learners never really become native speakers, it is equally agreed that they can indeed progress from the elementary to the superior levels of proficiency in the foreign language (based on the ACTFL guidelines), if they are taught by a language instructor well versed in the prevailing Communicative Teaching Approach enhanced by instructional digital resources. But this approach too is not perfect, for though learners may succeed in communicating effectively, critics have pointed to the paucity of their meta-knowledge (especially grammar) of the language they have studied for years. This is because, in contrast to the Grammar Translation Method, grammar is not explicitly taught but embedded in the communicative activities and imparted implicitly in the classroom. Regardless of the divergent perspectives on explicit and implicit grammar instruction, the students’ journey from the elementary to the superior levels of proficiency is long and arduous and the Learner-centered Communicative Teaching Approach enriched by CALL appears to yield the best results. But the results are optimal only if the learning process itself begins early.

While the remarkable advances in digital technology are hailed as having positively impacted language learning and teaching, it has also been recognized that technology can neither replace the central role of a well-trained and well-motivated teacher nor replicate the intensity of naturally occurring language use in the target culture. While technology is a valuable tool, transforming learning into an acquisition for optimal results requires more than technology. 

Besides the challenge of how best to transform the learning experience into an acquisition process, language programs are often confronted with formidable institutional structural challenges that impede optimal language learning and students’ achievements of superior communicative competence in Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs). These challenges include the common late start of students in their language studies (which often begin in college), the limited number of contact hours typically devoted to language learning, the common undervaluing of language instructors, and the lack of enduring bridges overseas for intensive language programs.

The scholarship indicates that beginning language studies early, ideally before the so-called critical period (around puberty), leads to greater success. But most students begin to study foreign languages in college. The result is generally decent language competence with fossilized errors and poor cultural competence as marks of the students’ late start, despite several years of studying the given language. The challenge of the late start is compounded with the common four-hour/week schedule for language learning, which is greatly dwarfed by the intensity and cultural input of naturally occurring language use that classroom learning seeks to mimic. With the limited amount of time devoted to an endeavor that requires intense and sustained linguistic and cultural practice, the development of superior fluency is generally difficult to achieve in many programs. For optimal results, the research in first and second language learning and acquisition is unambiguous. The earlier one starts learning a language the better chances of success. Thus, language programs and institutions necessarily have to work with local K-12 institutions so that students begin studying foreign languages in the pre-critical period phase for optimal results.

Besides this challenge, there are other equally important obstacles that hinder the development of superior proficiency in foreign languages, especially in the LCTLs. One of these challenges is the mismatch between the recognition of the value of language proficiency expressed in words and the actual deeds in institutions. Language training remains largely treated as secondary to disciplinary training in Title VI programs and institutions, though it is recognized that sound disciplinary training and ensuing scholarship in area studies are dependent on adequate linguistic and cultural competence. 

Another important challenge, but largely overlooked, is the fate of the instructors of LCTLs, the primary actors who lead students tirelessly through their journey from novice to superior proficiency. They work to lead learners step by step until they develop their speaking, reading, writing, and listening skills to communicate in the target language in meaningful ways. But they often do so in the midst of formidable difficulties.

They are often demotivated as a result of being largely undervalued by their peers in their programs and institutions, as measured by extremely limited number of tenure-track or tenured positions they hold, though their their skills and expertise are hailed in grant applications to win federal dollars. The direct result of this pattern is the gloomy fate of many instructors of LCTLs. Many of them are often forced to hold several part-time jobs to make ends meet and do not have the time to invest in scholarship. As a result, they often “hold permanent residency in the growing nation of adjuncts and lecturers.” 

The values of their hard-earned degrees equally suffer from their conditions. Because of the limited resources available to them (compared to their peers in other disciplines), their productivity in peer-reviewed publications is generally low, which also leads to the implicit devaluing of their advanced degrees compared to those of their colleagues, though the academic requirements they fulfilled and the institutions that granted their respective degrees are the same. Whether the argument of the low enrolments that characterize LCTLs often brandished to justify the difficulty of creating more secured tenure-track positions for language instructors is tenable or not, it goes without saying that the quality of language instruction is adversely affected by the enduring structural challenge in Title VI programs and institutions that generally offer no upward mobility to language instructors beyond lecturer positions. 

In order to train the new generation of experts in foreign cultures and area studies, these issues have to be taken seriously, with tangible efforts within Title VI centers and institutions. Additionally, the language learning process, from the elementary to the superior levels must be rethought as a continuum that intensely and gradually leads students toward approximating native speakers’ communicative competence with the guidance of a well-trained, well-valued, and well-motivated instructor. Though it is acknowledge that the learner will never be a native speaker without “pre-critical period socialization,” they can indeed approximate native speakers’ cultural and linguistic competence by reaching the superior level of proficiency with the right institutional measures, teaching methods, and excellent and motivated teachers. Indeed, learners can be trained to reach the highest-level possible of linguistic and cultural competence and even to acquire what could be dubbed humoristic competence. This occurs when learners can comfortably produce, comprehend, and laugh when native speakers utter statements conveying idiosyncratic humor deeply embedded in the target language culture and social interactions. This level of proficiency is rarely achieved without an early start and intense language instruction.

With these few provocative thoughts, I hope to trigger a conversation on the future of language training in Title VI centers, the relationships between centers and K-12 institutions, the treatment of language instructors, and the best ways to build and sustain vibrant language programs capable of producing first-rate experts who are well versed in LCTLs and cultures across disciplines.


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