The Modern Language Association (MLA), in a report outlining strategies to improve foreign language study in higher education, argues “In the context of globalization and in the post–9/11 environment...the usefulness of studying languages other than English is no longer contested.” In today’s multicultural communities, there are myriad benefits to increasing the number of elementary and secondary teachers able to communicate in a second language. The school population is growing increasingly diverse. Teachers who study second languages can communicate with students and parents in languages other than English. World language study, however, also provides teachers of all subject areas with a window into other cultures.
Language study is often seen as an essential component of global competence development. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) is an association for language education professionals. In a recent press release on the association's position on global competence, president Mary Lynn Redmond stated, “It is clearly difficult to talk about becoming globally competent without placing an emphasis on the ability to communicate in other languages and to understand other cultural perspectives.” Some argue that even a small amount of language study for prospective teachers provides them, at the very least, with an understanding of what it is like to struggle to learn a language as many English language learners in their classrooms (and their parents) do.
Current state of lanGuage study among teachers
Unfortunately, despite the evidence that study of languages other than English is greatly beneficial to teachers, higher education institutions vary widely in language requirements – and teacher candidates are often exempt from those that do exist. Ann Imlah Schneider interviewed administrators and faculty at over 40 campuses in the United States, and fewer than 40% of them reported a campus-wide foreign language study requirement (though many students enrolled in the institutions voluntarily studied another language). Over 90% of the nearly 120 current teachers she interviewed felt their undergraduate training should have included mandatory language training. Over two-thirds of teachers and teacher education students reported that they did not complete any foreign language training at all.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education passed a law identifying the study of foreign languages – including Native American and American Sign Language – as core curriculum. Starting in 1997, the board required teacher preparation candidates to achieve a novice high level in their conversational skills (as defined by the ACTFL) before completion of their teacher education programs. Due to lack of enforcement, the state has seen significant declines in foreign language study among teacher education candidates, so it is making efforts to enforce foreign language study to ensure all teachers benefit from the innovative policy.
Teacher candidates at the University of San Diego must meet the College of Arts and Sciences core requirement and take at least three semesters of one of nine languages (Arabic, Chinese, Classical Greek, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Spanish), or pass an examination to demonstrate competency in any other language in order to graduate.
The MLA report offers suggestions to integrate language study more broadly across the curriculum, such as encouraging students to continue studying language and culture once they return from study abroad (regardless of major), as well as taking multidisciplinary courses taught in target languages – to enhance the linguistic skills of students who do not major in a language. This approach holds promise for the development of language and cross-cultural skills of prospective teachers.
Look to language teachers
Foreign language teachers can act as a resource for teacher preparation programs. Some are trained in language departments and seek certification from colleges of education to become language teachers. MLA reports that education is the top field of employment for foreign language majors, with over a quarter reporting elementary or secondary teaching as their occupation. Others are trained as teachers and study languages as a minor or second major, with little to no overlap bewteen language and teacher education courses. A recent trend in colleges of education is to acknowledge heritage langauge speakers and their potential as resources or language teachers.
Regardless of the path to becoming a teacher, teacher educators can work with language majors and their faculty to bridge the gap between teacher preparation and language study. Also, future language teachers are highly proficient in at least one other language, and could act as resources - such as teaching sample mini-lessons in a target language, teaching key vocabulary for teachers, and offering suggestions to students and faculty on how to integrate langauge into various methods courses.
Colleges of education can look to language departments and outside organizations focused on language learning for strategies and suggestions on how to integrate language learning into exhisting curricula. Leslie Fenwick, Dean of the College of Education at Howard University did just that. She is in the process of devleoping a summer Spanish certificate program (with plans to expand to Arabic), specifically for education majors from any campus, that will focus on vocubulary specific to educators. She developed the program by partnering with the language department on campus.
Foreign language teachers also have a wealth of resources and information available to them to learn languages. Organizations such as MLA, ACTFL, and Culture and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) offer a wealth of resources on language teaching and learning, and sponsor conferences to bring professionals together. Others offer instruction to hone skills. For example, Concordia Language Villages - a program of Concordia College - provides immersive language and cultural experiences in a camp setting in the United States. They offer resources on teaching foreign langauge such as webinars and classroom activities as well as a Master of Education in World Language Instruction. According to Carl-Martin Nelson, Director of Marketing and Enrollment, they also often hire future language teachers to teach during their summer programs.
Promote language study generally
The MLA reported that foreign language study reached a new high in 2009. Yet, according to Kenneth Cushner, fewer than 5% of teachers today speak another language. The Secretary of Education's annual report on teacher quality, 41 states reported a shortage of foreign language teachers. Overall, leadership in colleges of education and beyond need to do more to promote language teaching and learning among teachers. Policymakers and educators need to do more to not only promote language study in this country, but specifically need to promote its study in future teachers.