Last week I posed a question on twitter trying to find out what teachers thought was the biggest challenge facing world language educators today. I got some interesting responses and some expected responses.
And yet, I don’t think those come even close to the biggest challenge we face, because our field doesn’t like to talk about what teachers really need in order to address what I have seen to be the biggest challenge in so many classrooms. I call it the dirty secret of language teaching because if teachers of other content areas knew about it, they would be appalled. If administrators knew about it, they would rethink hiring most of us. If the students knew about it, they would stop listening to anything we have to say in class tomorrow. And if parents or other taxpayers knew about it, they might question why we spend money on having world language teachers at all. In fact, it is pretty incredible that so many teachers have been teaching successfully for this long without really knowing this foundational information about language learning.
We don’t know what we don’t know
One of the reasons that we don’t like to talk about our dirty secret is because most of us aren’t even aware that we don’t know what we don’t know. Most of us, myself included, got certified to teach a world language without ever learning about it. Some of us went all the way and got their PhD focusing on a very specific aspect of the language without ever learning about it. In face, I was able to teach at both the K12 and the college level for almost a decade without ever even thinking about it. And yet, it might be the most important piece of information that every language teacher and perhaps every language learner should know. Once I found out, I felt like I had been a fraud of a teacher for all those years. I immediately wanted to call everyone of my former students and apologize for not being the teacher that I could have been had I known. I’m not saying all of this to make anyone feel bad. It really isn’t your fault that you don’t know. You learned the language you are teaching despite of it. Probably because you either had an incredible study abroad experience, are a native speaker, or had some other personal connection to the language. Unfortunately, those extraordinary language learning experiences are not the the norm, but if we used the information hidden in the dirty secret, we would be able to help even more students feel successful at learning a language. So what is this dirty secret that we either don’t know about or don’t want to admit to anyone else in education that we don’t know about it? Are you sure you want me to tell you?
Why do you want to know this secret?
If you are still reading this, you may be one of the many teachers that I have had the fortune to work with, learn from and commiserate over what is happening in our classes. Perhaps one of the most frequently asked question from teachers that I hear is wanting to know where their students are supposed to be at the end of Level 1 or Level 2 or 201 or whatever your course naming convention happens to be. Of course, what these teachers really want to know, but are perhaps afraid to ask is, are we doing a good job? Is all that planning on weekends, all that grading late into the night, all those hours looking for resources, materials and new ideas, is all of that worth it? Are we effective enough that our students are getting the desired results? You may not like my answer, but if all that work wasn’t focused on information hidden in the dirty secret, then perhaps you have been wasting your time and your students may not be producing the results they could be. Now, I don’t think it was necessarily a waste of the learners time, because undoubtedly almost any language teacher is able to help students see that there is a bigger world out there. Almost any language teacher can get students to understand some basic vocabulary. Almost any language teacher can help students appreciate elements of the new culture that is the focus of the class. Almost any language teacher can …
…. but of course you still want to know the secret and I promise I’m getting there.
What would you do if I told you the secret?
Before I can tell you the dirty secret, you will have to make a couple of promises. If you are going to keep reading and I’m going to tell you about “it”, I want you to promise me that:
- you will spend the next year trying to learn about “it” as much as possible. You will find a workshop in your area. You will read journal articles. You will participate in conference sessions. You will inhale information on websites. You will try to develop a deep understanding of this critical information.
- you will share your learning about “it” with the teachers in your department, your school, your institution, your district, your state. Go screaming about it from the mountaintop so that more and more people can have the same learning as you do.
- you will share as much as you can possibly learn about “it” with the language learners that have put their trust in you to help them the amazing skill of speaking another language. If you can take the secrecy out of learning a language and share this incredible information with them, not only will they be less scared to learn Chinese, German, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese or whatever language you are passionate about, but they will be able to reach for the learning and visualize being a successful language learner.
- you will begin using “it” to guide your planning on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis. Never again will you plan a lesson without thinking about the power of this information. Never again will you develop an assessment that doesn’t ask the learners to demonstrate that they are developing this crucial aspect of learning a language. And never again, will you or your learners wonder if the semester or the school year was a good one. Did we meet our goals?
Ok, here comes the secret
Now that you have promised me to join me on a journey to change world language learning, I guess I can tell you about the dirty secret. Careful readers will know that for me “it” is all about PROFICIENCY. If language teachers don’t understand what proficiency is, then how can they possibly plan for it? Why should we plan for proficiency? Because it’s the ultimate outcome for any language learner, so therefore it must become the ultimate guide for us to create learning experiences . Sure there are many other admirable but secondary outcomes of any good language learning environment, but for the most part students are looking to develop an ability to use a language in order to communicate meaningfully in real-world situations.
Are you surprised? Expected something bigger or something different? Knowing what proficient speakers and writers look like at any point of the language learning continuum really shouldn’t be a secret. Not to a language teacher and not to their students. So what are you going to do with this secret to language learning? Oh, wait. You’ve made some promises and I’m ready to hold you accountable. Here are a couple of links to get you started:
- ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines: a great site to explore and learn
- NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements: a sampling of what proficiency could look like at a different levels and in a variety of scenarios.
- YouTube Channel: watch videos of the different proficiency levels in a many different languages.
The really scary thing about our little secret: proficiency isn’t really a new thing. It’s been around for quiet some time with the first provisional proficiency guidelines released more than 30 years ago. Proficiency isn’t a methodology, so it doesn’t matter much how you teach as long you understand what proficiency outcomes look like and you can design pathways for your learners to reach it. Proficiency also isn’t a fad that will go away at some point. Proficiency should be what language teachers are about. If not, then why bother?
Image credit: “Barbed Wire in Sun” http://picjumbo.com/barbed-wire-in-sun/