Linguistics and Language Teachers

Language Study in American Institutions

Barring the exceptional academies with explicit focus on language instruction (such as bilingual programs, where students take core classes in both English and a target language), even the most well-funded K-12 schools provide little in the way of second language study. Often, students don’t begin to learn a second language until high school, though many start as early as middle school, and fewer have the opportunity to participate in Foreign Language at the Elementary School (FLES) programs.

While recent trends have shifted the priority of learning outcomes towards students achieving a degree of conversational fluency, the paltry 40 minutes per day allocated to language study leaves a lot to be desired. Often, students are neither receiving target language input, nor engaging in authentic conversational activities for that full duration. Certain pedagogical interventions and teaching styles can start to address this deficit, but it must be acknowledged as a deficit–40 minutes per day, for 180 class days, over the course of 4 (or 7) years is nothing compared to the thousands of hours of input, babbling, and self-talk children engage in during the early stages of language development, before producing even two- or three-word utterances.

Of course, teachers have no power over scheduling; these decisions are left up to building or district administrators, who are themselves hamstrung by the complex net of state and federal educational requirements. I will not further mince words: district-, state-, or nationwide educational change is a highly political process. My own French teachers had to address the school board every year to justify the continued existence of the program–and the year I graduated, several of the World Languages teachers were bullied into retirement by district administrators looking to cut back on expenses (the same year, they installed stadium lights and astroturf to the football field, constructed a new track, and put up a new, state-of-the-art, electronic scoreboard).

A friend of mine, a high school Latin teacher, was similarly bullied into retirement, the year he became eligible to receive full benefits. The middle school Latin teacher in the district, his wife, would be reassigned to teach the last few flights of Latin students, until the close of the Latin program (which, by the graces of the administration, would coincide with the year she would be eligible to retire with full benefits). To add insult to injury, these two exemplary teachers built the program up from obscurity to local renown; their students dominated local Latin competitions and went on to study the Classics (some of them as doctoral students). Students signed up to take Latin, because of the overwhelmingly positive experience of their peers, older siblings, or even their parents.

We must further acknowledge that many American academic programs in language study focus more on literature and culture than on language or teaching. The Modern Languages Association published a call to action back in 2007, urging that language departments diversify beyond literary criticism, in order to focus more on practical language ability. Their argument is that the current model for these departments prioritizes literary analysis as the end goal of language study, which devalues any non-literary courses by classifying them as “lower-division”, as well as language-specific courses which help learners achieve higher levels of proficiency:

It would be difficult to exaggerate the frustration this rigid and hierarchical model evokes among language specialists who work under its conditions. Their antagonism is not toward the study of literature—far from it—but toward the organization of literary study in a way that monopolizes the upper-division curriculum, devalues the early years of language learning, and impedes the development of a unified language-and-content curriculum across the four-year college or university sequence. This two-track model endows one set of language professionals not only with autonomy in designing their curricula but also with the power to set the goals that the other set of professionals must pursue. In this model, humanists do research while language specialists provide technical support and basic training.

MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages (2007).

Okay, so let’s suppose the department head has decided to add a linguistics course to the curriculum, as an elective for general majors, but as a requirement for teacher candidates. What sorts of things would be useful to cover? Let’s start with a brief discussion on what linguistics is and isn’t.

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