Dinner With People I Don't Know

I was having dinner with the head of the math department at an Ivy League school last night. He mentioned that this past academic year in his school the faculty, in spite of his own protestations, had had a contentious set of meetings in which the foreign language requirement of two years was dropped.
I asked why he thought that had happened. He told me that most people didn’t realize the importance of a foreign language, especially in his field of math. For example, he said that in one field of math, called Algebraic Geometry, being able to read French was an absolute necessity.
I asked him if he thought there might be any other reasons for the school voting down foreign languages. He couldn’t think of any. I asked him to consider two things:
1. the teachers who voted it down may not be filled with their own fond memories of learning a language. (Jon Stewart said yesterday on his show in a big sigh, “Seven years of Spanish and all I can say is “Donde esta”.)
2. the teachers who voted it down didn’t consider it a very good product. They didn’t consider it a very good product for their university to be offering.
By asking these two questions, I was trying to get into this guy’s head. Maybe he would take some of what I said back to his school and share it with some language teachers, whose jobs are now in jeopardy because of the recent vote.
I was trying to get this guy to look at the idea that maybe students don’t like to feel bad about themselves when they learn a language. That maybe:
– the students hate languages at that school.
– they are good at history or science, but can’t successfully employ the same mindset to do well in their language classes.
– languages at this (very prestigious, top ten in U.S.) school don’t work because language acquisition is different from other kinds of learning.
– the brain treats language differently from normal human cognition and therefore should not be studied cognitively.
He didn’t go for it. Not at all. He didn’t get it. He couldn’t think outside his box. To him, because he had to learn to read French for his profession, others should. It calls up the question of whether we should even force language instruction on anybody.
There was another person at the table, a high school student (this was one of those big family get togethers where you meet people you don’t know but who are distantly related). This kid, a massive interior lineman on his high school football team, reported that he is taking German online with BYU.
Now that got the attention of the math professor. That was within the box of his thinking. He asked all sorts of questions about how it worked. The kid answered each question, but then, somewhat oddly, added three or four times in a defensive way, “But I haven’t had time to keep up with it because of football.”
Look inside the response of the kid. That is really a statement, a strong indictment really, of the notion that we must work hard outside of class in order to succeed at things in schools. But that is not true for us at all. All we need to do is hear and read the language as much as possible. As Nathan has initiated a wonderfully positive, intrinsically motivated, approach to homework in his teaching, so also are all of us learning to teach a language without relying on making kids do work outside of class unless they want to – it is of no value unless they want to do it.
By saying that he didn’t have time to keep up with it, this kid was basically saying that he wasn’t really learning the language. Why? Because there was no classroom in which he could hear the language. Instead of hearing it, he was interacting with it visually on his computer, a sure formula for failure in languages. Even if he did his homework, he wasn’t going to get command of anything real with the language. BYU should  know that.
I came away from the evening quite discouraged that otherwise intelligent people could think this way and ever more grateful for my few friends who have accepted and embraced the idea of comprehensible input as the only real way to learn a language.

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8 thoughts on “Dinner With People I Don't Know”

  1. So while you were having dinner last night in a big gathering so was I (15). We were gathered in a language immersion setting at the home of my Master teacher of Mvskoke here in Oklahoma. There were 2 fluent speakers and 2 highly proficient. One was 77, one 67, one 47, and one 26. The 26 year old is one of perhaps a handful of young people who can speak proficiently. The 77 yr. old represents the oldest and biggest age group, probably less than 50 people. The other two have just as few in their peer groups.
    But here was the jist of the discussion in which all of us shared–without our languages which shape our worldview, we have no identity as a people. This is HUGE to Native peoples. Our languages shape our worldview! They are our worldview! To not know your language means you don’t have a worldview that truly reflects your culture and your land suggested the youngest speaker. Why not just use English if is there no one who can share the deeper richer nuances of our language? You can ask — are you hungry? — in English to communicate as easily as Mvskoke. But the Eldest pointed out–you can’t talk about the Little People’s vine that they play on as they move through the trees and really get the same idea in English. However, we are forced to do that as we speak English because we can’t hurdle over the vocabulary as “baby” speakers. We miss the richness of descriptions in our words that speak of our tribal worldview and understandings that are more ancient than the language we speak fluently.
    How does this fit with Ben’s discussion. I never really paid attention to math much less geometry or french. But, here is a professor saying that to understand the beauty of the process of math–it’s language– at the level he is teaching, French is crucial. Crucial because in French you understand the nuances of the Mathematican’s worldview. You will get what is being thrown down as the kids say. And this is what may be important in the request to keep the language requirement in place.
    We would not think stop to offering his math class because it was difficult or unpleasant to listen to, or heaven forbid BORING. And while no one wants to sit through a boring class, we do all the time. The learner is the one who determines whether it is boring, while I agree that a teacher’s presentation can help create that attitude. I am not advocating for boring language classes, I’m suggesting the professor needs to step up to the language table and advocate with them to retain the classes due to his need for his math students to understand the beauty of the worldview of math and that is a point only a mathematican can expouse.

  2. Great post as always Ben. The sad thing for me is the opportunity lost when teachers, departments and programs decide not to “teach” languages in a way that honors the way humans “learn” them.
    I can relate very well to this because for sixteen years I taught “traditionally” and I struggled and frustrated many students and had very little to show for my efforts. Our World Language Learning Area normally failed 50-75 students (of about 500) each year. We were becoming the laughing stock of the school. The problem was that nobody was laughing. The principal before this current one cut 3 language teachers and said, in public, that it was because our record was so dismal.
    Then I found Blaine, and Susie, and Ben and Jason and Alice and Anne and Bryce and all the rest….. I experienced a whole paradigm shift. It has been a LONG journey and I have not progressed as well or as quickly as I would have liked, but my teaching has been transformed. This year we had 2 students fail.
    I want to share with you and the readers of this blog what was written on my board on the last day of school. These students were freshman and had had 1 year of Spanish in 8th grade. The instruction in 8th grade was very traditional and very output based. I am sharing this because I think it speaks volumes.
    It is important to look at what they are “really saying,” Their success (NOTHING MOTIVATES LIKE SUCCESS) has very little to do with me. It has to do with the method. It has to do with personalization and convincing kids that they CAN acquire a language.
    I am sharing the comments because I recognize that the comments that follow have little to do with me and everything to do with the method AND the fact that I feel safe on this blog and know that people will know that I am not boasting….
    This stuff is powerful because this group of 40 students feel VERY confident in the language and want to continue. That, I truly believe, is far more important than what they have learned. If I can convince students that languages are something they can do and are fun then they will do what it take to acquire the language. I have created students that WANT to go further. That is the most satisfying thing in the world.
    So, I am going to share some of the comment that were written on my board. This is so common with CI teachers. I know that the students of Anne and Laurie and Michele and….. on and on and on get exactly the same feed-back. Traditional teachers MUST hear these testimonies so that they too can give this gift to their students. It is just so important….
    Here are the comments: (Please substitute “the method” for each reference to me) and please read between the lines to get what they are REALLY saying.
    Dear Sr. Crosby
    You have taught me so much this year. You have truly made Spanish fun for me. I can’t wait to take to take Spanish for at least the next 2 years. Thank you for everything! I hope I am always in your class. Your Thankful student ********:)
    So your class was the best this year. I never wanted to learn but you made it so much fun. I hope I have you next year. ****** *******
    Señor Crosby,
    I never wanted to learn Spanish. I was really against learning it at first. But your class actually made me enjoy it. I had fun and learned a surprising amount. I was able to talk to a Spanish speaking person because of you. Otherwise, I never would have known what they said. Thank you very much for being such a wonderful teacher.
    Hola! So your class was the best this year. I never wanted to learn but you made it so much fun. I hope I get you next year. *******

  3. Fabulous post. Did I ever tell you about my experience with the Colorado State senators and representatives when I was president of CCFLT? Boy did I get it in no uncertain terms that language classes are torture!
    Skip, way to go. I do not think you are bragging; you are sharing. When teachers share their troubles, they are not whining and when they share their successes, they are not bragging. We need to share this kind of stuff, so thanks for doing it.

  4. I have taught at the college level for the past 17 years as an adjunct. It is truly a wasteland for foreign language education, more so than the K-12 level. I think that for nearly all college level instructors the whole notion of even reflecting for a few minutes about how people learn any content area at all never appears on their radar screen. At least at the K-12 level there is at least a little attention paid to how people learn.
    I would like to see some more discussion about how we try to change the panorama of foreign language instruction in this country in a more assertive and political way…. think a little more out of the box. I know that many talk about the effect that they have on their colleagues in the various places where they teach and that that is a way to bring about change. I see that as sort of the 50 year plan. I prefer something more assertive like for example interventions in ACTFL national conferences and the regional and state conferences. I have always thought that the ACTFL proficiency standards are sort of the elephant in the room. Most foreign language instructors will avoid a serious discussion of them just like vampires avoid sunlight. This of course is because they barely have the foggiest idea of how to teach for proficiency and fluency. I am considering organizing some meetings at the community college that I teach at to look at the ACTFL standards and posing the idea to my colleagues of maybe, god forbid, making some attempt to work towards these standards.

    1. Thanks Susie – you have been instrumental in making me more useful to kids – forever grateful for that:)
      David – excellent ideas. I was adjunct at a college for 7 years – except for understating a bit:) you are right on.
      I love your ideas about the ACTFL strategy. I wonder if another strategy would be to offer free mentorship to college teacher prep programs? What if we offer to give some hours to their future language teacher students instructing them in the philosophy and strategies of CI. I know none of us has time but I do think it might be effective.
      Just a thought that I have heard bounced around on sites like this one.
      One final thought: I think there is HUGE buy-in with ACTFL. I think we have to really push the ACTFL guideline that says 90% of all instruction MUST be in the target language. I would argue that this is vital and impossible without CI strategies. We could point out that “they” are not doing this and that we can help them meet the 90%.
      what do you think?

      1. I’ve been looking over the ACTFL web site and can find the proficiency standards for students (writing, speaking) but where in the ACTFL guidelines is the part about
        “90% of instruction must be in the target language”?
        I need to be able to give a solid citation for that number to justify my CI approach in my new Project-Based-Learning school. I am very much afraid that, as students are mainly working on their own in groups of 3-4 on inquiry-based projects, (figure about 8-10 projects for the year) they will not be really hearing the language much at all. Classrooms are not to be arranged with the teacher in front, but in clustered groups, with the teacher walking amongst them to aid as a facilitator. My goal is to push the projects as much as possible as work done outside of class (since I don’t give homework anyway–except for that 30 minutes a week of pick your own CI). I don’t know if I’ll be able to get by with that goal or not. I go to training this month in Grand Rapids and I will be sure to ask the language department of PBL how to have a project-based class with 90% L2 input. By the way, my teaching colleague in Spanish is very much in favor of CI–she student-taught that way but did not have accesses to the resources to help her succeed when she got her own classroom.
        thanks for anyone who can find that exact citation for that 90% figure.

        1. …where in the ACTFL guidelines is the part about “90% of instruction must be in the target language”?….
          Lori, Skip found it and I posted it as a regular blog post today at this link:

  5. A couple of years ago I attended a scholarship awards ceremony for a major US company. The CEO addressed the winners by challenging them to prepare themselves for working in a global society. He acknowledged that all of these students had achieved high honors and academic awards already and many were headed to prestigious universities and highly competitive areas of study. His advice was for them to find every avenue available to find opportunities to increase their understanding of other cultures. He told them that corporate America needs people who can work here and abroad successfully with people from other cultures. World language studies seems to be the most logical discipline, because how can you really begin to understand another culture without beginning to acquire the language?
    A pediatric emergency nurse told me that it does not matter how technically skilled you are if you cannot communicate with your patient. A lawyer who works with clients with limited English worries about being able to represent them by relying on what a court appointed interpreter says. Even agriculture is now a global industry. The world of advertising and marketing find that successful campaigns can be lost by not realizing that just translating slogans into another language is far more complex than using a translation device. A pharmacy in New York used a translation device and told a customer to take the medication eleven times a day when they were only supposed to take it once a day.
    Are there no windows or internet in the Ivory Towers?

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