World Languages Expo 2011

Colorado Convention Center, Bear Peeking through Window
Colorado Convention Center, Bear Peeking through Window

What an interesting conference! Usually when I go to conferences, after half a day I have pretty much absorbed the key points and either skip the rest or spend a lot of time feeling bored. This event was different.

Last week, Tomoko and I flew to Denver for the 2011 Annual Convention and World Languages Expo of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).  Frankly, having been to any number of not-all-that-exciting conferences put on by the high-tech industry, my expectations were not very high. I signed Tomoko and myself up for the workshops on Thursday and scheduled our return flight on Sunday, imagining that we would probably be finished with the conference by lunchtime on Friday and spend the rest of the weekend sightseeing.

Nothing of the sort happened!  Tomoko and I were running from early morning until evening for three days. Each day we ended up the day so stuffed with new information and things to discuss that we headed straight for the nearest bar so we could immediately start sorting out what we had learned that day.

Of course, not everyone would be so stimulated by this event.  For me, however, the question of how the human being acquires languages is a rather fundamental intellectual and philosophical question. Furthermore, there were also fascinating discussions of tricky and controversial issues concerning the politics of education, technology, and funding. I saw a lot more true innovation going on at this show than I have seen from any sector of the technology industry in ten years or more.

First up: what exactly is language proficiency?  I spent the first day in two excellent workshops lead by Professor Chantal Thompson of Brigham Young University. Because of its close association with the Mormon Church and the church’s missionary language training program, BYU is a leader in the field of language instruction. The first thing Professor Thompson went over was the difference between “achievement” and “proficiency”:

Achievement Proficiency
What you know about the language. What you can actually do with the language.

Think about that distinction for a moment. The vast majority of language teaching programs all over the world have been focusing on the wrong thing for the last two hundred years or so. Language teachers LOVE achievement. It is nice. It is neat. You can test it with multiple choice tests. Students from Confucian heritage countries also love achievement for the same reasons: it is very straightforward, you just spend thousands of hours memorizing things in preparation for the multiple-choice tests.

The problem is that it is entirely possible to have a student with an amazing score on multiple choice tests who is not capable of ordering a glass of beer in a bar.

Teaching proficiency is much, much harder. It is also substantially more labor intensive. Instead of simply reciting a list of vocabulary to forty silent, passive students and telling them to come back on Friday for a multiple-choice test, you actually have to get them to talk and discuss meaningful content in a systematic manner. For an instructor, this task is quite challenging.

OK. So we are not going to rely so much on multiple-choice tests. How are we going to measure anything? The answer is, you need to do one-on-one assessments and you need a very rigorous framework for assessing levels of proficiency. The ACTFL has been doing outstanding work in this area, building on and extending work originally done by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department. The ACTFL’s scale starts at “Novice” and continues through “Intermediate” and “Advanced” to “Superior”. In each of the first three levels, the scale is subdivided as follows:

  • Low – Just barely there. Hanging on by your fingernails.
  • Medium – Solid performance according to the criteria of the level.
  • High – Couldn’t quite make it to the next level. That is, performing
    at the next level most of the time, but suffering from periodic relapses.

The ACTFL (more precisely its partner Language Testing International) does formal assessments of all four modes of communication: speaking, writing, listening and reading. Professor Thompson’s workshop was focused on speaking and techniques of moving students up the verbal scale.

During an assessment of a student’s speaking ability, a trained interviewer interactively talks with a student to identify a subject that the student has sufficient interest and background knowledge to discuss. The interviewer then prompts the student to have an extended conversation about that subject.  My impression is that the conversation is either usually or always recorded with the formal assessment happening off-line.

Several different factors are considered. Three of the most interesting are text type, listener and accuracy. Here is an abbreviated summary of my understanding of the scale:

Level Text Type Listener Accuracy
Novice Words Indulgent listener, used to foreign speakers Errors OK
Intermediate Sentences Sympathetic listener, used to foreign speakers Errors OK
Advanced Paragraphs. Should be able to talk in connected discourse, not just isolated sentences. Man on the street. Accent/errors should not create any sense of burden for the listener or impair the meaning
Superior Abstract. Should be able discuss politics, science, literature and the like. Should be able to present a structured analysis of pros and cons of a position. Man on the street. Mild accent OK. Isolated errors OK. Repeated patterns of errors NOT OK.

Interesting philosophical point: most native speakers in most languages only score somewhere in the “advanced low” or “advanced medium” range in their own language.  In other words, if the student does not have the intellectual capacity to deliver a precise and articulate reasoned argument in his own language, you obviously cannot teach him to do so in a foreign language!

…which led to the next point that came up repeatedly during the many different talks and workshops during the next three days: Many American university students are incapable of talking intelligently about much of anything these days. They seem to be so plugged into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and video games that they are completely unaware of even the most critical current events.  Healthcare reform? Never heard of it. European financial crisis? Don’t know anything about that. Upcoming presidential election? What’s an election? Many university language professors find themselves having to introduce their students to the remarkable concept that there is a world beyond their little social universe and that there are subjects that require more thought and analysis than you can drop into a 140 character Twitter post.

The discussions of education politics were also fascinating. There is a certain well-funded language learning software company that has high pressure salesman standing in front of mountains of yellow software packages in most major airports. This company also runs wildly irresponsible television advertisements promising that a student can effortlessly learn Japanese “without memorizing any vocabulary or grammar rules” Having spent the better part of three decades and many thousands of hours to get to something like the lower end of the advanced range in Japanese, I can assure my readers that gaining even the most rudimentary conversational ability in Japanese requires a lot of effort. Huge amounts of effort. At any rate, this company’s steroid-induced sales force has apparently been telling school districts that they can save money by firing their language teachers and simply handing out CD-ROMs to their students. Breathtakingly unethical behavior! For obvious reasons, this company was the only language software company in the world not present at the show.

Our final session on Saturday afternoon, was a delightful talk called “Blood, Teeth and Lady Gaga” by Leslie Davison of Dillon Valley Elementary in Colorado. Ms. Davison is funnier than a nightclub act.  She teaches a sort of elementary school immersion Spanish language program for very young elementary students. She points out that if you want to get students to retain language, the first thing you have to do is throw away the traditional vocabulary guidelines and restructure the lessons around things the kids are actually interested in. Days of the week? The only day most of these kids are interested in is Saturday. Not a compelling subject. Weather?  First grade boys could care less about the weather. Any parent will tell you that a first grade boy will happily run naked into a blizzard to play with his friends. Weather is not a very relevant to a first grade boy either. Ms. Davison’s technique is as simple as it is radical: just ask the kids what they are interested in and build the lesson in such a manner that they spend all the time talking about things that they want to talk about anyway.

By the way, we did have a pretty good time in the evening finding nice restaurants with glasses of wine to help us get our spinning heads under control. We particularly liked Larimer Street between 20th and 22nd. Pizza at Marco’s Coal Fired Pizzeria was delightful as was dinner at twelverestaurant.

At any rate, I came back to Austin with many pages of notes and ideas for Asatte Press. Now the major challenge is simply to decide which of the dozens of projects and opportunities to tackle first.

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