A new law in Illinois is reportedly galvanizing foreign language instruction initiatives in the state. According to this law, students who master more than one language may be eligible for a “Seal of Biliteracy” on their diplomas.
Chicago Public Schools expects to announce its plan for language instruction next month. Other districts have begun instituting language programs; Glen Ellyn School District’s plan, which has yet to be reviewed, requires students to attain an “intermediate high” level by graduation. The general initiative, which began in California, has been spreading around the country.
The Chicago Tribune explains:
At the Illinois State Board of Education, Reyna Hernandez is the assistant superintendent for the Center for Language and Early Childhood Development. State officials, she said, realize that students aren’t building the language skills they need to thrive in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.
How can the world be “increasingly” multilingual and multicultural, unless new languages and cultures are being added at a rapid rate? (There are not, as far as I know.) What’s meant here, I think, is that countries, cities, neighborhoods are becoming more culturally diverse, and more languages are spoken in a given geographical region than before.
If that is what Hernandez and other state officials mean, then priority will likely go to languages spoken in the area (including English). To me this sounds more like a bilingual (or second-language) education initiative than a foreign language initiative. Last year, Joanne wrote about how her old high school was going bilingual; this may have been an early move in the initiative’s direction.
Foreign and bilingual language instruction have somewhat different purposes, content, and methods. When you study a “foreign” language, your purpose is to come to learn words, phrases, grammar, idiom, and literature of a language not in your midst or of your time–and not initially familiar to you. You may do so for a wide range of reasons: to enlarge your understanding, to study literature, to prepare for diplomatic work, to travel without depending on interpreters, etc.
When, in the context of bilingual or second-language instruction, you study a language that is widely spoken in your geographical area, your goals may be different. You may be striving for increased proficiency in a language you already speak. You may wish to communicate better with customers or associates. You may want the language for a job. You may also seek to do the “foreign language” things–things that bring in contact with distant times and places–but your main goal is to deal with everyday situations and people.
There’s lots of overlap, of course, since a language is a language, and study is study. One can learn Spanish in Malaga, Santiago, or San Francisco. Literature involves the everyday; Pablo Neruda’s Odes are all about ordinary (and extraordinary) objects, and everyday conversation has rhythm and beauty. A strictly practical language course can lead to literary study and vice versa.
In addition, foreign language study can benefit from local resources and expertise. For many languages, such as Russian, the opportunities for practice are much more extensive than they were 30 years ago.
Also, the concept of “foreignness” makes less sense now than it once did. Some find the concept itself objectionable, since (in their view) it involves treating the “foreign” language or culture as the “other”–as something alien and appropriable. I disagree–but that’s a topic for another time.
Still, from the various hints in news articles, it seems that officials are using the phrase “foreign language instruction” to mean “bilingual programs.” Whatever one thinks of either, officials should state what they mean.
Note: this is my last guest post for Joanne Jacobs (for this particular stint). Thanks to Joanne for inviting me back to blog, and to Darren for being a terrific co-blogger.