After much consideration and many changes, the most up-to-date version of our "Moonshot" question that is driving our research and work is: 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?
With this as our foundation, we came to our two primary solutions. One was that we would target our foreign language curriculum to younger students that are in elementary school to take advantage of their neural malleability in learning a new language and to allow students to benefit from the cognitive benefits that come from becoming bilingual at a young age. Second, we would opt for a communicative-based immersion approach that, through strategies such as teaching math in a non-English language and requiring our pupils to have class conversations in the language that they are trying to learn, would best enable students to be able to have fluent and comfortable conversations in a non-English language when they leave the class; compare this with currently-used techniques that are more concerned with teaching students the grammar of a new language which simply requires mundane short-term memorization for the exam meaning that students easily forget what they learned soon after.
These were the two solutions that we proposed to our peers and what we asked for feedback on with the hopes that we could get great and constructive recommendations, questions, and concerns. Not surprisingly, this indeed took place and so we would like to provide the highlights of that feedback and then share our responses to in order to show where our thinking is now afterwards.
Early Curriculum: Yes, and...
To begin, some of the positive, or “yes, and”, feedback we received for our desire to develop early educational curriculum was that it would be crucial for our student's development and that it could allow us to incorporate more than one language. On the other hand, others' "and" contribution was that we could focus on one certain language similar in grammatical structure to English to reinforce syntactic and semantic lessons and to best churn out a plethora of, say, English and German speaking students. We agree with the mindset that there should be many language options available to the student after our own wrestling with this question. We are aware that the student might decide after a couple of years that they are no longer interested in a certain language and would like to switch (given that they have the option to) and that this would require a great deal of student and teacher effort. While we plan to research and plan for this idea further, we are sure that the positive neurological effects of learning a second language at an early age will be worth the difficulties of having the student switch languages if they so desire. As we have mentioned before, the benefits of being bilingual can allow students to become more-skilled individuals, can help ease racial tensions, and have significant cognitive benefits.
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?
Also, we were encouraged to look into how we can equip parents to help their children learn. This is a very good thought and tends to be a principle concern of parents when they learn that their children will be taught in two languages when learning just English is hard enough. Additionally, others pointed out, being that this is school, there will be homework and since we would be teaching students traditional subjects in a new language, it could very well be in a language that the child's parents do now know and thus they will not be able to help without some sort of supplementary information for them. The reason why this is not particularly concerning for us, however, is that this system essentially forces parents to take a bit of a backseat from their child's learning and allows the child to take ownership of it which they can easily do through some thought and reasoning which is a skill that they will need later on in life. Instead, the parent would be in a more supportive role where they are asking encouraging questions of their child to help them think through the problem at-hand.
Another thought was that we should market how learning a language in high school can help a student test out of a language requirement in college to truly motivate students to learn a foreign language at a young age. While we find this to be a great motivating factor and idea, we plan to focus on how we can develop the curriculum and current program to get a student proficient or at least familiar with another language before college applications would be a motivational factor. Another thought for early childhood curriculum was that it would affect the other subjects in a positive way by allowing the child different paths and creative ways to view other subjects. The example given was that math being taught in Mandarin is easier for students to learn due to the similar nature of math and written Mandarin language.
Early Curriculum: Yes, but...
For the “yes, but” feedback on our first solution, one concern was that a child might get confused if exposed to our curriculum too early because linguistic differences in two languages that they are learning. In fact, this was the main concern evident by the fact that is was repeated many times, so we decided to look at really focus in on this question. Related concerns were that parents might object to their child having to learn additional languages or that the child might object or refuse to cooperate with the curriculum due to a desire to only focus on English.
The conventional wisdom for why a child would get confused when learning a second language at an early age when they are still learning English is that the child would have to develop two separate activation systems they jump between in order to access the different languages that they know; in effect, their brain has to live in two (or more) different words in order to function which is said to be overwhelming for the child. This "persistent linguistic competition" is all based on studies that, according to their authors, show that “knowing more than one language can cause speakers to name pictures more slowly and can increase tip-of-the-tongue states" (where you’re unable to fully conjure a word, but can remember specific details about it, like what letter it starts with). While we see that this is a very real side-effect, research also shows that this is actually a short-term effect because, in the long-run, it seen that early bilingualism actually allows the student to develop better cognitive control in the future. To give a better example of this, it has been determined that the fact that the child's brain has to go through a language competition so to speak, means that they are constantly undergoing a "mental workout" that leads them to being especially good (that is, better than monolingual children) at executive cognitive tasks such as differentiating between objects, planning, and problem solving that are of course valuable skills to have in adulthood.
Other concerns were: 1. how are we planning on finding teachers who are fluent in different languages and qualified to teach in other subjects as well, and 2. how will we be able to pay all of these teachers. These are very real concerns, but since we are designing this project in the theoretical world that money is not an issue, we are only going to focus on the problem of there being a lack of qualified teachers. While in the beginning it might be a setback, this is in part because so many students do not learn a language in high school (as we have shown in our previous posts) thus hindering their ability to become foreign language teachers after they are finished with their education. If our program is successful in creating a higher percentage of bilingual adults, then within just 20 years this will no longer be an issue as teachers will graduate high school proficient in a second language. However, in the meantime, there is a respectable percentage of native speakers in America that we could actively recruit, but we are also open to tapping into our (hypothetical) extensive resources to recruit people from countries that speak the languages we would be teaching; the fact that they do not speak English is not a major issue because the classes would be structured in such a way that they would speak in their native language.
Communicative Approach: Yes, and...
The positive, or “yes, and” feedback, we received for our highly communicative approach included the fact that it tied-in nicely with our first solution and that a combination of the two would be very effective because implementing a communicative-based curriculum during the critical language-learning period would result in maximum efficiency. We do not want to place ourselves in a restrictive box, so receiving affirmation that we could combine our two solutions in creative ways was reassuring and exciting. Additionally, many thought that this solution would be the best in the long run for the students, and for getting students to actually remember and take hold of what they learned. We found this to be really encouraging as we are hoping to, as mentioned above, stray away from the grammatical approach and its emphasis on getting students to do things such as conjugate perfectly instead of getting them comfortable with the language. This simply affirms our foundational principle that the rules of a language are gradually acquired through experience speaking instead of memorization.
...research shows that the fact that the child's brain has to go through a language competition so to speak, they are constantly undergoing a "mental workout" that leads them to being especially good (better than monolingual children) at executive cognitive tasks such as differentiating between objects, planning, and problem solving that are of course valuable skills to have in adulthood.
Another suggestion was that we could facilitate the development of a child's ability to communicate in a non-English language by requiring them to spend time in other countries. Our concern, however, is that since we are planning to implement this program for young, elementary school students, we would be asking children to travel, perhaps without their parents, which, to us, is not a good idea. The spirit of the suggestion is something we do agree with though and so we are now looking at how we can create an immersion aspect within American schools, complete with cultural lessons that help the student connect the language to the people who speak it to best simulate the experiences that come with traveling.
Communicative Approach: Yes, but...
When looking over the “yes, but” feedback we received for this idea, we saw that one of our peers brought up the fact that many schools are currently trying this approach and it has not been effective. This is interesting and is something that did not come up in our research; that being said, it is very possible that we overlooked this and so we will look into this further and see if we can find information supporting this concern. Even if we do, that would be a positive because it would then give us real-world examples of factors that proved to be barriers for our methods that we can think about how to overcome in order to make our ultimate solution as effective as possible.
Others felt that learning the grammar of a new language is vital for being able to communicate in it. However, we believe that, in the beginning stages, it is actually more important to focus on getting students comfortable with speaking in a foreign tongue and using everyday dialogue. This is because, as we saw in our class lessons about syntax and its rules for how expressions can be combined, we know that you can make errors in syntax and a native speaker can most likely still understand the sentence. We believe that this basic fact is important to when people are learning a language. A good example is that of a toddler saying to their mother “apple juice want”; the mother would not respond with “no you must say, ‘I want some apple juice'” because she has an understanding that the child is still developing their ability to communicate through spoken language. We want to give our students the same chance to grow and develop their capabilities, especially if we will be teaching them at an early age. While we do see and acknowledge that grammar is very important for language, we would like to place a gradual emphasis on it that will allow our students more time to grow their, what we are calling, "native mental grammar."
Reflection and Plans for the Future
Based off of all of this great and useful feedback and our reflection on it, our plans moving forward are to keep the solutions in tact as they are and to think of the best ways that we can combine them into one joint effort. Furthermore, we wish to utilize modern models of how language is processed in the brain to inform how we develop this final solution in order to optimize its efficiency. The end result we are hoping for is a communicative-based, immersion program whose implementation begins in the early years of elementary school. We are excited to see what exactly our final product ends up looking like as well as about continuing to hear from you all to help us along the way. Thanks!
 Foster, K. M., & Reeves, C. K. (1989). Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) improves cognitive skills. FLES News, 2(3), 4.
 Lewis, Lezley. Homework in an Immersion Classroom: Parental Friend or Foe? ACIE Newsletter, December 1999, Vol. 3, No. 1.
 Marian, Viorica and Shook, Anthony. The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual.
 Sweitzer, Julie. Why Immersion?. ACIE Newsletter, February 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2.