Skip to Content

Q & A with Marty Abbott, Director of Education, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Why are foreign language programs being cut in schools?

Like the arts, foreign languages are what some people call the “lost curriculum.”And sadly, elementary language programs are most often cut in urban school districts, which are having a hard time meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Principals and superintendents are trying to do the best they can. You have to see things from their point of view. They’re pulling back on arts and languages in order to offer extra reading and math sessions. But will more of the same type of instruction make a difference? What those administrators don’t realize is how second language instruction can be used to teach content that will be tested. That way the concepts children are learning in other classes are reinforced, and they also get the benefit of acquiring another language.

A high quality FLES [Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools] program reinforces the math and literacy skills the students need to pass the high stakes tests. The language teachers develop their lessons to accomplish that. There’s a good study from Louisiana that shows students learning French did better on their state tests than those who were not in French classes.  This points to not only increased academic achievement but also reinforces the idea that there are increased cognitive benefits for students who have early exposure to a second language.

What defines a good foreign language program?

The key to a high quality foreign language program is a foreign language coordinator at the district level. This is the person who ensures that the program is standards-based and that students will be able to move from level to level without interruption in their language acquisition. The transitions are handled so well in Glastonbury  [Connecticut ], which is a small district, and in Fairfax [Virginia ], which has more than 200 schools and is one of the larger districts in the country. This is the person who is constantly advocating for the language programs, not only protecting it from being cut, but advocating to make languages part of the core curriculum, ideally from elementary through high school. There are at least 20 states that don’t even have someone at the state level specifically responsible for foreign language programs.

A good language program has to try to produce students who can actually communicate in the target language. For so many years, languages were looked at strictly as an academic pursuit that fulfilled an academic requirement. That’s why you so often hear people say, “I took four years of Spanish but I can’t speak it.” Our goal should be to move students through articulated programs from an early age. Our goal should be classrooms where teachers speak the target language exclusively. Why shouldn’t we be able to produce graduates who can negotiate a business deal or conduct diplomacy without an interpreter?

Do you foresee changes in how we teach world languages in the U.S.?

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages takes a lot of calls from parents who are interested in having foreign languages in their elementary schools.

It’s going to take both top down and bottom up efforts, We need the federal government to support initiatives and provide funding. We need the support of state legislators and governments to promote the idea that world languages need to be a part of the core curriculum. And at the same time, we need parents to mobilize, and make their voices heard around this issue.

There is legislation in Congress right now that would support world languages and give some loan forgiveness to teachers who go into foreign language instruction.

Additional resources from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages:

ACTFL Talk Radio: Live programming featuring discussions of key issues in
language education. http://www.actfl.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=4889

ACTFL’s proficiency levels are often cited in conversations about foreign language instruction.  They can be found at http://www.actfl.org/ .

Back to World Languages feature