Listening to Language Educators

In every café, you could hear Spanish, Chinese, French and Italian. Language teachers gathered in clusters in and around the Denver Convention Center, where 6,500 language teachers and administrators gathered for this November’s American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Expo.

I am a life-long Spanish teacher and ACTFL member. I attended the conference this year as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow in order to reach out to language teachers, conduct a roundtable discussion, and provide information about ED’s services and programs. The roundtable experience gave me the change to listen to language educators who were attending ACTFL.

Maryann at the conference

Maryann Woods-Murphy & Nusrat Sohail at the Department of Education’s ACTFL exhibit.

I met Rebbecca Pittenger, the coordinator of Kentucky’s Georgetown College Spanish Immersion Program. Pittenger is a teacher who is passionate about helping her students gain language proficiency. “We’ve taken an immersion model and are applying it to college work,” she said. “We’re a small school in Kentucky, without a large Hispanic population, and we’ve taken on language learning. Students learn philosophy, math and other general education courses, all taught in Spanish!”

Sara Hofler, the Principal of the Paragon School in Orlando, Fla., makes sure students in her specialized K-12 program for students affected by autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, learn German. People often ask her why such students need a foreign language. “You never know where it will lead– students need many opportunities to give them a window to a new world,” Sara told me. “My experiences in Germany and with German changed my life so I expect it will theirs!”

When I asked the language teachers what concerned them the most, the overwhelming response was that too many college students arrive with little proficiency in foreign language because they haven’t been able to benefit from the kind of well-articulated programs that produce strong language skills. In addition, some college programs that train language teachers don’t even require a study abroad component – an experience that is fundamental for a non-native speaker who wants to acquire advanced proficiency. Many of the teachers worried that budget constraints are forcing districts to use electronic language programs to substitute for teachers. Even though many of these 21st Century tools are promising, the teachers believed that they should be used to extend the reach of a language teacher, not to replace him or her.

Secretary Duncan understands how important international education and language learning is for students in the United States. Last spring Duncan quoted Nelson Mandela:”If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” The Secretary added that “we must improve language learning and international education at all levels if our nation is to continue to lead in the global economy; to help bring security and stability to the world; and to build stronger and more productive ties with our neighbors.”

Click here to watch Arne Duncan’s message about International Education.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Allendale, NJ.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been teaching French and Spanish at the Middle School level and I have found how wonderful it’s this stage for students to learn the language. Students are more willing to take risk to speak another language without fear that they may say something wrong. However, the sad reality is that the classes are very big and the resources are limited because a foreign language is always going to be on the bottom of the district need. Our Governor of NJ has been doing a lot of cuts and he doesn’t seem to care much about us, public educators.

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