Tag Archives: language learning

The Importance of World Languages and Intercultural Competence

The national debate about education seems omnipresent in the media, whether on TV or the radio, in newspapers and magazines, or in social media, from Facebook to Twitter, and more. As a nation, we look to our schools to educate students for participation in an increasingly flattened global economy. We hear about the importance of teacher accountability, of better test scores in math, sciences, and English. We also need to hear much more about creating increased opportunities for students to learn other languages, starting in early grades, so they may have sufficient opportunity to reach high levels of communicative proficiency and intercultural competence. The time has come for us to open up the debate more fully about this important question.

While it is true that English enjoys a position of prestige on the global scale, we should not to take it for granted; we cannot predict what the future may hold. Even so, America must develop citizens who can communicate well in other languages. We have to address national security concerns, to be sure. We must also to prepare students who can demonstrate respect for our trading partners. Beyond those concerns, we do well to ensure that students are prepared to understand our neighbors, friends, allies, foes, and those within our own borders who are members of language minority communities. Language learning opportunities open doors for mutual appreciation, understanding and respect. As a world leader, America needs citizens who show an interest in building positive and equal relationships with other nations. When we make that kind of investment, we gain much more than a business transaction. We also gain the prospect of making new friends and allies.

There is another benefit to language study that warrants our attention. Students who learn other languages also gain insights into other cultural perspectives, and intercultural competency, which is defined as the ability to communicate in culturally appropriate ways, while showing appreciation and understanding of others, and maintaining a spirit of openness and respect for others. To attain to a high level of intercultural competency, students require enough time not only acquire another language to sufficient proficiency, but also time to explore, explain, investigate, and reflect upon the perceptions of other cultural groups, their values and their beliefs.


As students investigate other cultures through authentic resources, they gain insights into the commonalities and the differences between cultures. According to studies by Kramsch, Deardorff, Moeller, and others, cultural inquiry leads to greater insights into one’s own culture, a greater awareness of the similarities and differences between cultures, and greater self-awareness. As students reflect on the results of their inquiry, they come to realize how culture impacts one’s attitudes and worldview. They reach a deeper understanding of others, and they also grow in flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and respect.

Intercultural Competence – A Conceptual Framework

To achieve these worthy goals, we must be bold in our efforts to increase language-learning opportunities in the early years of our children’s educational journeys. In my own school district, for example, we recently completed a group inquiry into the ways we could offer more opportunities for students to begin language study in early elementary years. We have a Spanish-English dual immersion magnet school, which has been in existence for several years. This highly successful program is modeled on the French immersion schools of Canada, which have a long-proven record of success in supporting students to become bilingual, interculturally aware, and cognitively more advanced than their monolingual peers. In my district, we have added a second dual immersion magnet school, and plan to add others. In addition, we have worked to establish clearly defined language learning pathways in K-12 so students will be able to pursue language studies across their educational journey. Efforts such as these should be considered and implemented across the country.

Clearly there are many advantages to establishing such language-learning opportunities for the future of our country and its citizens. Let us begin in earnest to discuss how we can ensure we meet these strategically essential goals, and how we may prepare our children to be globally aware and communicatively proficient in more than one language. The future of America’s standing in the world is at stake. Now is the time to act thoughtfully, thoroughly and intentionally, to meet these important objectives.


Engaging Today’s Learners

This article and discussion was first posted on Edutopia at this link.

I have thought a lot about student engagement in the 31 years I have been teaching teens. How about you? In fact, I would say this is one of the most intriguing questions for inquiry I have investigated, while at the same time never thinking that I have arrived at an ultimate conclusion beyond this: I still have work to do to engage my students! Just when I think I have found a surefire new technique, a new student comes along to push me back to digging through my tool box of ideas.

Resources on Engagement


There are a bunch of resources on Edutopia to consider. Check out these posts, for example:

One of my other favorite resources is ASCD. Here are a few things available on their site:


Today’s teens are not so very different from the past. They want their learning to be meaningful, fun, and especially, they want it to be engaging. I have found a number of tech tools that my students enjoy using, such as Todaysmeet.com, Padlet, and Edmodo.



I use wikis to create multimedia language learning opportunities for my students based on the themes of our inquiry. The wikis are loaded with videos, language learning games, input on various aspects of language and culture… I add to my various pages as the needs arise in response to the students inquiry and needs to know. I seek to direct them to many sources as a home base rather than merely turning them loose to go all over the internet. I am not opposed to that, I just recognize that we have 55 minutes a day together, and I want the time to be well spent. I consider this to be part of my coaching.

PBLL as engagement

As for PBLL itself… I love PBLL because it IS engaging! Whenever we offer students opportunities for voice and choice, opportunities to be creative, to make the learning personally relevant and meaningful, we create greater incentives for students to be engaged. I have enjoyed seeing students come alive and excited simply because of the increased opportunities for meaningful exploration based on their own interests, curiosity, the desire to know. I have often wondered what has happened to students who are apathetic about learning. Little children are naturally interested to explore and know. Why not teens and adults, for that matter? We build bridges to connect our students to the real world when we truly engage them with meaningful inquiry.

Language-learning as engagement

I have always wanted every student to be successful in my classes. I truly believe that anyone who already speaks a language can also learn another. Language is innate to we humans, so it should just be a given that anyone can acquire second or third language. It has been a real challenge in a very monolingual cultural context to help people believe it is possible! In much of the world, knowing 2, 3, 4, or more languages is normal. In America, even in such a diverse place as California, it often feels like a battle to convince people to believe that it is doable. The big problem is we have told the public that language learning ought to be reserved only for those going to college because the belief is that it is too hard for many people to learn another language. In addition, even those going to college are told that they need take only 2 years of a language, when it takes about 6 years to reach advanced fluency in a language similar to English like Spanish or French. So, my efforts to engage students in their own language learning have included the need to support them to take language classes over a period of years, not just one or two. I want students to become communicatively proficient, not experts of verb conjugations which they will never use in real life! Engagement has been an essential component to my teaching all these years.

Teachers as agents of engagement

One more thing. I need to be engaged too. When I think about being in the classroom for 31 years, I must stop to ask where all those years have gone. What has kept ME going all this time? It is not just a love for kids, even though that is a big part of what makes teaching a wonderful career, but it is also about the opportunity to grow and learn for myself as well. I wanted to be a teacher in large part because I love being a student. I have a job where they pay me to learn in community with others. I have often been asked why it takes so many hours a week to teach. People have wondered why I would keep changing the curriculum if it is already working, or why I feel the need not to use a textbook. I think people are well meaning, but honestly, if I were to recycle year after year the same thing, 35 or more times for a whole career, wouldn’t that be odd? I would easily grow board with what I teach because I NEED to learn, constantly to be renewed, growing, not stagnant. I think the best way to engage students is to be excited about learning new things all the time. If I can pass along a desire to rekindle the natural curiosity of childhood to those around me, I will have done a good thing, I believe. Not that it is about doing a good thing, but rather, it is about experiencing meaningful community by sharing inquiry one with another. That has truly been the best part of being a teacher these many years.

What about you?

Have I whet your appetite to share? Got any ideas to pass along? In your experience, what has worked well? What hasn’t? What have you learned from your own inquiry into student engagement? I would love to know about your experiences with student engagement. Or collegial collaboration. Or personal pursuits which have been meaningful in your teaching journey…