The National Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Where's the Beef? A Response to "Motivating Students' Foreign Language and Culture Acquisition through Web-Based Inquiry" by Levi Altstaedter & Jones/Response to Letter to the Editor

By Wu, Ping; Altstaedter, Laura Levi et al. | Foreign Language Annals, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The National Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Where's the Beef? A Response to "Motivating Students' Foreign Language and Culture Acquisition through Web-Based Inquiry" by Levi Altstaedter & Jones/Response to Letter to the Editor


Wu, Ping, Altstaedter, Laura Levi, Jones, Brett D., Foreign Language Annals


It is a common saying nowadays that ''learning a foreign language . . . goes beyond acquiring grammar and vocabulary and being able to engage in oral and written communication'' (Levi Altstaedter & Jones, 2009, p. 641). For example, Curtain and Dahlberg (2004) asserted that ''Culture is closely related to language and is an essential component of instruction'' (p. 4). And, in a sense, it may be true that ''students . . . cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs'' (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1996, p. 27). However, it is even truer that students cannot master a foreign language until they can communicate in it and, between the two, the ability to communicate certainly seems much closer to mastery than does the possession of cultural knowledge.

Yet, for the past 30 years researchers have consistently found that American students are not obtaining even basic foreign language proficiency. In 1979, the U.S. President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies proclaimed that ''Americans' incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous'' (Panetta, 1999, p. 1). Twenty years later, a former member of the President's Commission stated: ''It would be even more 'scandalous' to proceed as we are now'' (Panetta, 1999, p. 12). But, as the 2008 ''National K-12 Foreign Language Survey'' found ten years later, the United States has done just that. For example, the survey's authors reported that ''Unfortunately, the overall picture of foreign language instruction in 2008 was no better-and in some areas worse-than in 1997'' (Rhodes & Pufahl, 2009, p. 7). The 1997 survey referred to above had found that ''well-articulated K-12 foreign language programs aimed at producing students who have high levels of proficiency are still uncommon,'' that most American students never achieve foreign-language proficiency, and that many schools admit that they do not even have such proficiency as their goal (Branaman, Rhodes,&Rennie, 2001).

Thus, ''often we hear students say: 'I had three years of Spanish in school but never learned to speak it''' (Valette, 1973, p. 408) or researchers point out ''After four years in the study of French, the student was often still unable to read a French newspaper and would have been paralyzed if confronted with a genuine Frenchman'' (cited in Shuman, 1971, p. 22). Foreign language classes where students do not learn to communicate in the target language are the functional equivalent of reading classes where students do not learn to read, writing classes where students do not learn to write, and mathematics classes where students do not learn to add, subtract, multiple, or divide. While foreign language classes are far from unique in this regard, at least in the other disciplines it is regarded by the teachers and the schools as a failure when the students do not learn the subject matter. But not so in foreign languages, and one reason is the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning.

The National Standards provide a framework for foreign language learning that includes five different, interconnected foreign language curricular goals. These are Communication (''Communicate in languages other than English''), Cultures (''Gain knowledge and understanding of other cultures''), Connections (''Connect with other disciplines and acquire information''), Comparisons (''Develop insight into the nature of language and culture''), and Communities (''Participate in multilingual communities and cultures at home and around the world''). However, only one of these goals-Communication-actually concerns foreign language proficiency. Furthermore, ''these five goals carry an equal weight regarding their importance'' (see, e.g., Levi Altstaedter & Jones, 2009, p. 641). Doing the math, this means that proficiency is considered only one-fourth as important as the other four goals taken together. …

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