Hablas Java? Parlez-vous Python?

Credit: Jillian Lees, Daily Titan

Credit: Jillian Lees, Daily Titan

Computer coding could substitute for a foreign language for Florida high school students applying to state universities under a bill moving through the Legislature, reports the Sun Sentinel.

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, a former Yahoo executive, thinks students should study a foreign language in the early grades, then learn coding in high school. People without technology skills “will be left behind,” he believes.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is campaigning against the bill. It would make as much sense to call music a language, Carvalho said.

Le robot educateur est arrivant

European scientists are developing language-teaching machines to help five-year-olds learn a second language, reports Jacek Krywko in The Atlantic.

L2TOR (“El Tutor”) robots will use “microphones to listen, cameras to watch, and artificial neural networks that will analyze all the information that’s collected.” The project is funded by the European Union.

Designers believe the machines will be able to pick up nonverbal cues to monitor students’ boredom, confusion, happiness and sadness.

“The problem with previous generations of teaching machines was their complete lack of social intelligence,” says Stefan Kopp, a German L2TOR researcher. “Our robots will notice tears, smiles, frowns, yawns … and dynamically adjust to how a child feels.”

Designers will observe kindergarten teachers “and then program our robots to act like them,” Kopp says.

It sounds crazy to me. But a robot teacher that looks like a poodle and speaks French — well, who knows?

“New” and techy isn’t necessarily better, advises Andy Smarick on Star Wars and Education Reform. “Like the Empire and manymanymany other reform movements, today’s education reform also seems to place an outsized faith in technology.”

Lost in translation

Learning a foreign language in elementary school is common in Europe, rare in the U.S.reports Pew.

Some U.S. high school students meet foreign-language requirements by studying American Sign Language or a computer programming language.

. . . few Americans who claim to speak a non-English language say that they acquired those skills in school. Only 25% of American adults self-report speaking a language other than English, according to the 2006 General Social Survey. Of those who know a second language, 43% said they can speak that language “very well.” Within this subset of multilinguals who are well-versed in a non-English language, 89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition.

At the college level, international studies is in decline, writes Charles King in Foreign Affairs.

Shifting priorities at the national level, a misreading of the effects of globalization, and academics’ own drift away from knowing real things about real places have combined to weaken this vital component of the United States’ intellectual capital.

. . . After a steady expansion over two decades, enrollment in foreign-language courses at U.S. colleges fell by 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013. Most language programs experienced double-digit losses. Even Spanish—a language chosen by more U.S. students than all other languages combined—has suffered its first decline since the Modern Language Association began keeping count in 1958. Today, the third most studied language in U.S. higher education, behind Spanish and French, is a homegrown one: American Sign Language.

Thirty percent of U.S. researchers in international relations say that they have a working knowledge of no language other than English, according to a William and Mary survey.

Why learn a foreign language?

What Is The Purpose Of Foreign Language Education? asks Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s studying French, in The Atlantic.

Are we using foreign language as kind of weed-out for college? What is the ultimate goal?

I had to demonstrate knowledge of a foreign language to earn a degree in English back in the ’70s. They said understanding a foreign language would help me understand the structure of English. Je n’en suis pas persuadé.

In Macon schools, Mandarin is mandatory

With lots of poor students and low graduation rates, public schools in Macon, Georgia and surrounding Bibb County face lots of problems, reports NPR.  Haitian-born superintendent Romain Dallemand’s “Macon Miracle” has brought longer school days, year-round instruction and mandatory Mandarin Chinese instruction for every student, pre-K through 12th grade.

“Students who are in elementary school today, by 2050 they’ll be at the pinnacle of their career,” Dallemand says. “They will live in a world where China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP. They will live in a world where, if they cannot function successfully in the Asian culture, they will pay a heavy price.”

This school year, Dallemand is rolling out Mandarin in stages, a few sessions a week, with the youngest kids starting first. In three years, it will be at every grade level.

A Mandarin teacher costs the district only $16,000 a year, because they’re subsidized by the Confucius Institute, which is partially funded by the Chinese government.

Some parents are dubious.

“Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates,” says Macon resident Dina McDonald. “You’ll see that many of them can’t even speak basic English.”

McDonald herself has a ninth-grader in the public schools and says she can imagine some students going into fields where Mandarin could be useful, like international business, technology or law. But with lower achievers, she says, “Do you want to teach them how to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in Mandarin?”

The superintendent says children will rise to high expectations.

A friend of mine helped start a multilingual magnet school in Detroit in the ’80s. Black parents who worked in the auto industry lined up to get their kids into Japanese language classes, thinking that it was the language of the future.

Can technology replace teachers?

Can Technology Replace Teachers?  As part of a series of layoffs and salary cuts, Eagle County, Colorado’s school district  replaced three French and German teachers with online instruction, reports Ed Week. Nobody’s arguing the online courses are just as good, but enrollments were high enough to justify keeping the teachers.

Technology can help teachers do more, not serve as a replacement, writes Coach G.

California grads can earn ‘seal of biliteracy’

California will affix a “seal of biliteracy” to high school diplomas for graduates who show proficiency in English and another language, including American Sign Language. Just speaking another language won’t be enough to qualify, reports Learning the Language.

Among other requirements, students must demonstrate proficiency in one or more languages other than English in one of four ways: Passing an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam with a passing score of 3 or higher; completing a four-year high school course in the same foreign language with an overall grade point average of at least 3.0; passing a district’s foreign-language exam at a proficient level or higher; or passing a foreign government’s approved language exam.

I like honors diplomas for students who’ve excelled in a particular area. However, I wonder how they test proficiency in English.


Voc ed vs. music, art, foreign language

Music and art teachers are complaining about a new California law that expands graduation requirements:  Students can take one career or technical education course in place of art, music or a foreign language, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Arts and foreign-language courses are twice as likely as vocational classes to be certified as college-prep courses, so students who choose career tech could be ineligible to go from high school directly to the University of California and California State University systems.

Some urban districts, such as Oakland Unified, San Jose Unified and East Side Union in San Jose, use UC’s college-prep curriculum as their graduation requirement.

The new law will lead to two tiers, of college-prepared and unprepared students, opponents say.

Proponents disagree. “We already have a two-track system,” said Eric Guerra of (Assemblyman Warren) Furutani’s staff. “It’s called college or nothing.” Students who aren’t on a college track leave school without useful skills, he said. California’s class of 2010 graduation rate is a dismal 74.4 percent. “There’s got to be a different way to deliver secondary education,” he said. “The status quo is not working.”

The law’s opponents seem to think that many students will prefer career tech to music, art or foreign language. If so, why force them to take  art or music to earn a diploma?

‘Food for Singles’ or French?

California students must take an arts class or a foreign language to graduate from high school, but a bill on the governor’s desk would let students choose a career course instead. The sponsor, Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Gardena, hopes the option will engage students who might otherwise drop out.

Common Core, which strongly opposes the idea, looks at Granada High School, where vocational options include:

* Hospitality to “learn grooming and proper work ethic.”

* Fashion Apparel to “learn sewing machine basics.”

* Landscape Design to “grow flowers, ornamental plants and vegetables.”

* Food for Singles to learn culinary “short cuts, new techniques, budgeting their food dollars, and multiple uses of appliances.”

“Education is about more than workforce preparation,” Common Core argues. “It’s about building creativity, wonder, cultural literacy and citizenship, for starters.”

California’s college-prep curriculum includes arts and a foreign language. However, the students who’d prefer “Hospitality” are not planning to apply to a state university.

The problem I see is that the bill includes no funding to develop high-quality  classes that would prepare students for real careers, most of which will require some additional training at a community college or in an apprenticeship program. Potential drop-outs might be motivated by Cooking for Chefs. It’s hard to believe anyone sees Food for Singles as a reason to stay in school.

Meet the teacher, Mr. Robot

Can robots teach? In labs around the world, social robots are learning how to engage children and teach simple skills, reports the New York Times.

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism.

South Korea is using robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is experimenting with English-teaching robots.  A UC-San Diego robot is teaching Finnish to preschoolers. At USC and University of Connecticut, children on the autism spectrum are interacting with robots.

Yes, it’s making people a bit nervous, though nobody thinks robots will replace human teachers.

When San Diego preschoolers pulled the arms off the RUBI robot, engineers programmed RUBI to cry when its arms were pulled. The children stopped pulling and  hugged the robot to stop it from crying.

RUBI significantly improved the vocabulary of nine preschoolers, researchers found.

At Honda Labs in Silicon Valley,  Asimo “taught grade-school students how to set a table — improving their accuracy by about 25 percent.”

In person they are not remotely humanlike, most of today’s social robots. Some speak well, others not at all. Some move on two legs, others on wheels. Many look like escapees from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Robots that look human come across as creepy, researchers say.  The way to encourage social interaction is to make sure the robot responds at a natural rate.

In recent experiments at a day care center in Japan, researchers have shown that having a robot simply bob or shake at the same rhythm a child is rocking or moving can quickly engage even very fearful children with autism.

“The child begins to notice something in that synchronous behavior and open up,” said Marek Michalowski of Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborated on the studies. Once that happens, he said, “you can piggyback social behaviors onto the interaction, like eye contact, joint attention, turn taking, things these kids have trouble with.”

At the University of Connecticut, a French robot called Nao works with children on the autism spectrum. Controlled by a therapist,  Nao demonstrates “martial arts kicks and chops and urges the child to follow suit; then it encourages the child to lead.”

“I just love robots, and I know this is therapy, but I don’t know — I think it’s just fun,” said Sam, an 8-year-old from New Haven with Asperger’s syndrome, who recently engaged in the therapy.

This simple mimicry seems to build a kind of trust, and increase sociability, said Anjana Bhat, an assistant professor in the department of education who is directing the experiment. “Social interactions are so dependent on whether someone is in sync with you,” Dr. Bhat said. “You walk fast, they walk fast; you go slowly, they go slowly — and soon you are interacting, and maybe you are learning.”

Georgia Tech scientists are trying to teach robots to understand nonverbal cues, so they’ll know when a child is confused or tuned out.

Robot teachers: sinister machines or patient helpers?