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Is Foreign Language Education for Enrichment Only?

Written By: Billette on November 23, 2009 2 Comments

I just had (yet again) a provocative and insightful discussion with a professor about some data I want to analyze. This data comes from an elementary school which has a Spanish “Enrichment” program. This program distinguishes itself from a “bilingual” or a “foreign language” program in that its administrators hope that students acquire an awareness of Spanish– no competence or mastery expected.

Here’s my question: is this approach (“Exposure above all”) enough to introduce students to become global citizens (minds + hearts)? How does a school with limited (personnel) resources and time allotments bring in a powerful program in another language? Is this representative of American education’s approach to foreign language learning?

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2 Responses to “Is Foreign Language Education for Enrichment Only?”

  1. Youki on: 28 November 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Perhaps it’s a compromise or a reframing of foreign language instruction. A way to “soften” the perception of foreign language instruction as conflicting or interfering with a student’s own native language learning.

    There’s a distinct “otherness” that happens when learning about foreign cultures in one’s own language that gets blurred when learning foreign languages. For example, we expect our presidents to understand foreign cultures; yet, if you look at John Kerry’s campaign, to be fluent in a foreign language is often portrayed negatively. As though objectivity towards other cultures can be attained through one’s own native language, but learning the language of the other results in thinking, and perhaps becoming like, the other.

    I’d imagine that if I wanted to promote foreign language instruction in a school where such programs are controversial, reframing the program as a cultural one, where the focus isn’t on learning a new language but on learning about world cultures, would result in a much easier time getting people’s support.

    I’d say that the “exposure above all” approach isn’t enough to introduce students to becoming global citizens, but it may be enough to introduce parents and politicians to the idea that learning a different language is important to learning about the world we live in. And since elementary school students have very little say in what their curriculum looks like, that’s an important step!

  2. daveski on: 29 November 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Thinking about your question, Billette, and Youki’s comment here, makes me wonder: where does “awareness” stop and “learning” start? when did they become separate? Are they thought to work against each other?

    I think back to a trip I took to Italy earlier this year, to visit people, see a smidgeon of a country I’ve never been to before and go to a conference on linguistic landscape. I’d never studied Italian before, and dutifully got something like a Berlitz phrasebook. I spent some hours with it, reading it on planes and trains and in a few other in-between nooks and crannies, and can say that I did ‘learn’ some basic phrases, a few of which are still with me 11 months later (“Dove posso cambiare il bambino?”, “Where can I change the baby?” for some reason has lodged itself in my subconscious, haha).

    But while that may be an example of shallow and brief learning, have I really gained an awareness or become enriched somehow about the Italian language? I’d be hard-pressed to say yes. I think that some level of transformation of thought and perception has to happen for us to become “enriched” by learning another language, and as long as learning about another language and culture happens in a comfortable, familiar frame, then…can that really happen?

    I’d like to see examples of what schools are actually doing anyway!

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