Just one out of every five children in the United States take the opportunity to learn a foreign language during their K-12 years. Yet a second language not only impacts career choices — taught early enough, it can help students pick up new languages throughout their lives.
Sixteen states don’t include foreign language classes as part of graduation requirements for high school students, according to data from the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). This doesn’t mean districts, however, can’t start a foreign language program, even if they’re faced with limited budgets. What’s most needed, say experts, is instructional materials, and a way to get students talking.
“The main thing that curriculum writers need to focus on is establishing communicative outcomes for [a foreign language] program,” says Marty Abbott, ACTFL’s executive director. “Focus on how well students can communicate in the language from that culture at each stage of the program’s development.”
Finding a way for students to practice their language skills is a great place to start. Ideally, that would mean finding fluent speakers for them to talk with as they learn — which happens to be what most foreign language teachers said would be the “perfect app” in ACTFL’s 2018 Trends study, not yet published.
That’s less difficult if students are learning Spanish and French, the two most commonly taught languages in high school. For those studying Tajik, Persian or Greek, online programs such as wespeke, which matched native speakers with students learning dozens of languages from Tagalog to Urdu, can help.
Waiting until high school to start a foreign language program is also a missed opportunity. Research shows that children can start to differentiate foreign languages even during their infancy, and these skills taught in the earliest of years can help build “...executive functioning—a set of cognitive processes that includes attentional and inhibitory control skills—and cognitive flexibility, which aids problem solving and planning,” according to a 2017 study, “Young Minds: The Important Role of Brain Science,” co-authored by Patricia Kuhl, Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Curriculum designers may still feel daunted believing that materials needed for foreign language class may be financially out of reach. Abbott admits that she knows some schools put off buying new textbooks because of their cost. But with some creative thinking, there are ways to refresh classroom tools. Her favorite is to pull from what she calls “authentic materials,” such as classroom rules — those lists of guidelines posted at the start of every school year telling children to raise their hands before speaking or reminding them to be respectful of each other.
Downloading these guidelines from a classroom in another country is a great opportunity to study the language in a real-world use-case, and it also open up cultural discussions — useful in helping students contextualize a language and its history. Abbott says teachers can talk about why some rules are a fit for one country but perhaps not for the U.S.
"This is a very important process that helps them not only learn another language, but develop insight into their own language and culture," says Abbot. "When they compare and contrast, they can see how much more alike than different we are from other cultures."