First and foremost, before delving into the meat of the issue, we would like to provide a reminder of the statistical estimate that only 1% of American adults are proficient in a language they took in high school, which means that the American foreign language curriculum has failed about 250,000,000 people. These statistics clearly demonstrate that the issue of teaching languages in the US is a very important issue, that the three of us really care about.
Here is the initial version of our moonshot question: “How do we reform the American foreign language curriculum to adequately equip students to comfortably and effectively articulate a language other than English?
Now let’s give you a global overview of the feedbacks we received from you, so that we can try to revise our moonshot question and decide on a more specific direction we would like to take ( many of you were in fact worried that our moonshot would lack a bit of the “brain” aspect, the neurological aspect, which we actually think is not a big problem):
- Many of you took an American foreign language course during their time in K-12 and were able to share personal experiences about its shortcomings and how they can’t speak the language anymore today.
- Some asked whether we were going to focus on improving the way that a certain language gets taught or if we were talking about improving the teaching of many languages. If many languages, then will there be any differences in how we teach, say, Mandarin v. Spanish?
- Many felt it would be worth our time to look at how students are taught foreign languages in other countries as a way to incorporate what they have done successfully.
- Will our proposed solutions be informed from neuroscience and/ or linguistics findings?
- People appreciated the statistics we brought in to illustrate the current problems.
- Will be focusing on younger kids when they have more of an innate ability to learn a new language?
- How will we incentivize students to want to learn a new language?
- How will we deal with possible pushback from parents who don’t think it is necessary for their kids to learn a foreign language especially if they feel like it is hurting their kid’s performance in school, delaying their learning of English for instance and causing them to confuse between languages?
- How will we deal with the many variables associated with the education system?
Taking in consideration some of your feedbacks, here is our revised moonshot question: How can we best reform the American foreign language curriculum to adequately equip students to comfortably and effectively articulate a language other than English using modern findings and models of the neuroscience of language?
Here are eight aspects of our moonshot question:
- Have students begin learning a new language while they are in elementary school… perhaps as early as 1st or 2nd grade? Have these young students learn traditional subjects (i.e., math) in another language on certain days of the week. This can help incentivize students to learn that new language because that’s how they’ll be successful in class.
- Have high school language courses more Socratic as a way to force students to use the language that they are being taught.
- Utilize technology that incorporates modern neurolinguistics theories on how language works in the brain.
- Hire more teachers who are native speakers or very familiar with the language that they are teaching.
- Pass national legislation that requires students to take a few years of a foreign language does not allow this requirement to be substituted with another course/subject.
- Change ESL courses to allow them to better foster a student’s retention and development of the language that they already know.
- Change the curriculum so that students are instead practicing how to pronounce words and develop the correct accent so that they are more comfortable speaking this new language.
- Incorporate more information about the cultures of the groups of people that speak the language that students are learning.
How can we best reform the American foreign language curriculum to adequately equip students to comfortably and effectively articulate a language other than English using modern findings and models of the neuroscience of language?
Choosing only two specific aspects of our moonshot question is honestly not that easy. Perhaps one of the issues we really care about is beginning to teach kids a new language in the very early stage of their schooling, and have them learn traditional subjects, such as math, in another language on certain days of the week. We obviously all know that the earlier a child starts learning a second language, the better, for more reasons that one. A couple of years ago, it would seem impossible for people to mention the possibility of children to be able to learn a second language as young as three years of age, as they have not even mastered their mother tongue yet. Nowadays, research findings actually indicate something totally different. Research has shown that 50% of our ability to learn is developed by age 4 and another 30% by age 8. This is why three-year-olds are encouraged to learn a second language.
We also thought about examining schools that taught in two languages, one in the morning, and another in the afternoon. We wondered if this type of education was really effective, and why were there so few schools that proposed it.
Another aspect of our question we really care about is insisting on the oral aspect of language, both speaking and comprehension, which are skills that need to be developed before writing skills such as grammar, conjugation, etc. Hearing the language and being able to practice it as much as possible in class is very important, especially if children begin doing it from a very early age. Insisting on pronunciation will also allow young students to be more confident speaking the language and not afraid or even shameful to speak in class in front of his classmates.