DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION
Theory and Practice in Government Language
Jackson & Marsha A. Kaplan
The Foreign Service Institute was established in 1947 -
more than 55 years ago-as the training arm of the State Department. In our talk this morning, we would like
to present our view of what has been learned from FSI's half century of
practical experience preparing thousands of adult learners to carry out
complex, professional tasks in foreign languages. The core of our presentation will be
twelve pragmatic lessons that we have learned about language learning and
instruction at FSI. Although most of the observations are consistent with
much recent theory, in some cases they are in conflict.
At present, in the Language
we teach 63 languages - from world languages like Spanish and Russian to
national languages such as Turkish, Urdu and Thai, to regional languages
like Pashto, and Kurdish.
We train a variety of different students: from officers new to the Foreign Service
to Ambassadors, clerical staff, to security personnel. Most of these students come to us having
a specific language requirement. We also train adult family members.
Our students are selected for skills
pertinent to the identified needs of the foreign affairs community - but
not necessarily forstrong language aptitude.
Our students are typically very highly motivated: They know that proficiency in the
language they are studying is crucial to their success in their jobs - and
therefore to their competitiveness within the Foreign Service.
Learning a language to the levels that the Foreign
Service demands requires a very great deal of hard work. To get to the threshold level for most
overseas jobs-requires a good learner starting from scratch in Spanish or
Dutch about 600 hours of class-time, and almost the same outside of class
in guided independent study. To get
to the same level in such languages as Thai, Hungarian, or Russian requires
1100 hours. Japanese, Chinese,
Korean or Arabic requires more than 2000 hours in class.
At FSI, all instructors are native-born speakers of the
languages they teach and grew to adulthood within the culture. Many are professionally trained as
language teachers. However, all have
to learn how to teach in the special institutional context of FSI.
Mary McGroarty (2003) has recently described teaching at
an institution like FSI as a "best case teaching scenario.[with]
"small classes of well educated adult students who study languages to
further their career goals, trained teachers with native speaker
proficiency in the language of instruction, and systematic
assessment." In a sense, FSI is a near optimal lab for testing the
claims of classroom-based Second Language Acquisition theory and research.
From FSI's earliest days our
language training has been influenced by the findings of research and the
theoretical insights that derive from them. However, the consistent test
for FSI of all such insights has been whether or not they actually improve
the ability of the learners to learn to use the language. The most
important measurement has always been reports from the embassies and other
posts about what our graduates can and cannot do with the language in the
The term "language
proficiency" was first established at FSI. For us, it refers to the
ability to use language as a tool to get things done. Language
training programs at FSI are accountable for developing pre-specified
proficiency levels in our students in as short a period of time as
possible. The accountability goes to whether graduates of our programs can
use the language to carry out the important and complex work for which they
are responsible. If, for some
reason, they cannot do that work, the FSI program heads will hear about it
in no uncertain terms. Language educators at FSI get direct feedback from
our clients and stakeholders. When a
dissatisfied cable comes to us from post, it demands our attention.
Our programs are not given indefinite amounts of
time in which to prepare learners to do their work. For example, students
in the Russian program that Marsha Kaplan directs are expected to progress
in ten months from no functional ability in the language to the ability to
read almost any professionally-relevant text and discuss in detail with a
Russian-speaker any and all implications of that text for Russian-American
cooperation. Ten months of intensive
language study may seem like a long time, but, in fact, it is very short
when the scope of the goal is understood. There is no time to waste with
The more than 60 FSI language
programs, then, are for us the proving grounds for the usefulness of any
theory about language learning and teaching. The crucial question has been
and will continue to be whether any innovation, in fact, improves the speed
with which our learners can meet the proficiency standards or enhances in
some way the quality of the language skill that they do achieve. We at FSI have learned some things that
we believe matter in helping adult learners to develop a high level of
proficiency in languages in a short specified period of time. In our presentation, we present twelve of
the lessons which we have learned.
1: Mature adults can learn a foreign language well
enough through intensive language study to do professional work in the
language (almost) as well as native speakers.
The goal of language training for
FSI students is typically General Professional Proficiency in Speaking and Reading. This level is approximately equivalent to
on the scale used by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign
Languages. The mean age of language students at FSI is now at about 40. In
recent years, the average FSI student has begun class knowing 2.3
non-English languages, but, even so, most of them enroll as absolute
beginners in the language to which they are assigned. This is especially
true of students in languages other than French, Spanish, German, or
Russian. Despite this, approximately
75% of FSI's full-time students achieve or exceed their proficiency goals.
This is due both to the characteristics of the programs and to the
abilities of the learners.
Research on aging has shown that short term
memory and hearing acuity do decline with age, but in FSI's students these
losses are often compensated for by increased experience, which actually
helps in the language learning process.
The result is that skilled adults learn some aspects of the foreign
language better and much faster than children. They can do this because
they have learned how to learn.
We were encouraged by a 2002 article in which
and Snow argue-and we quote-"The misconception that adults cannot
master foreign languages is . erroneous." The authors point out that there are many
cases where adults have developed foreign language competency that rivals
that of natives, and they urge SLA
researchers to investigate such successes.
We have met many such gifted individuals at FSI, among both our
students and our faculty.
While it is true that most adults are not good
at eliminating accent and developing truly native-sounding speech, a few are able to do that. More important from our very practical perspective, where the
goal is the ability to use language as a tool to get things done, native
accent is normally not a criterion for success (although intelligibility
certainly is). As Kachru (1994), Sridhar (1994) and Firth and Wagner (1997)
have pointed out, mainstream Second Language Acquisition researchers have
had the "fundamental misconception"-the term is Kachru's-that the
target of foreign language learning is "to use [the language] in the
same way as monolingual native speakers" (Kachru 1994:797). That is
not true in the State Department, and, we suspect, not true for most other
2: "Language Learning
Aptitude" varies among individuals and affects their classroom
learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned).
Any language teachers anywhere in the world know
language aptitude when they see it:
some people are much better classroom language
learners than others. Moreover, in intensive language programs such as
FSI's, these differences can become magnified very quickly.
By aptitude, we are not referring to any theoretical
construct. We mean the observable
fact that some people know how to learn a language very efficiently in a
classroom and others do not, regardless of the effort they may put in.
Language Learning Aptitude is not a single
unitary trait, but a constellation of traits. Some aspects of aptitude can be measured. Madeline Ehrman's research has revealed
that measured aptitude is still the second best single predictor of learning success at FSI - next to previous
learning success - especially at the extremes of the scale. (Ehrman, 1998)
has been somewhat equivocal on the question whether language aptitude is
innate or potentially subject to change, it is clear to us that at least some of the skills
and awareness that underlie aptitude can
be learned. As adults learn more
about languages and how to learn them, they can get better at it. We have
observed some clear instances of this.
It is also possible for a flexible language program to
adapt to learners' traits so as to minimize language learning weaknesses
and maximize learning strengths for
particular learners. That is, we might say that some learners, in a
sense, demonstrate higher "aptitudes" in one kind of language
program than in another.
Finally, motivation, self-discipline, power of
concentration and confidence of success may be equally or more important
than cognitive aptitude in the achievement of language learning success, or
in the lack thereof (cf. Marinova-Todd, Marshall and Snow 2002).
3: There is no "one right
way" to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single
Students at FSI and in other government language
training programs have learned and still do learn languages well under a
range of learning conditions and types of curricula. As Spolsky 1988:383 writes, "Any intelligent
and disinterested observer knows that there are many ways to learn
languages and many ways to teach them, and that some ways work with some
students in some circumstances and fail with others.."
It is also clear that learners' needs change over
time-sometimes rapidly. Types of
activities that worked very well for certain learners at an early stage in
a course may be almost completely useless a couple of weeks later for those
same learners (Larsen-Freeman 1991: 336-37). At the same time, the lesson plan that
works beautifully for one class may not work well at all for another class
that is at the same stage. Learning is more efficient when the focus is on
providing each learner with what
he or she needs in order to learn right now, not on following an established curriculum.
A generalization that can be made here is that there is a need for changes of pace in
long-term language training. This is
one reason why immersions and excursions are so valuable for learners at
the advanced levels-they afford the learners the opportunity to try out
their language skills in new contexts.
Especially in long-term language training where learners typically
encounter extended plateaus in learning,such breaks in the routine can re-energize and
refocus the learners.
Explicit grammar instruction of some
kind is helpful for efficient language learning by most people-and
essential for many. We do not mean
the learning of formal grammar rules necessarily, although as Rod Ellis
(2002) has recognized, some of the most brilliant adult language learners
will demand such rules. But most
adults are helped by having the form, meaning and use of grammatical
patterns and paradigms pointed out to them so that they can focus on
them. A broad overview of the
grammatical system early in a course also appears to make language learning
more efficient for our adult students: creating awareness of forms and
functions to be learned that learners can anticipate as they move through
Lesson 4: Time on task and the intensity of the
learning experience appear crucial for efficient learning.
Language learning is not an
effortless endeavor for adults (or for children). For the great majority of learners,
learning a language rapidly to a high level requires a great deal of
memorization, analysis, practice to build fluency, and--of
course--functional and meaningful language use. Learning as quickly as
possible to speak and understand a language automatically in a variety of situations requires intensive
exposure to and interaction with that language. At FSI, it requires most adults at least
five class hours a day for five days a week, plus three or more additional
hours a day of independent study.
language also cannot be done in a short time. The length of time it
takes to learn a language well depends to a great extent on similarities
between the new language and other languages that the learner may know
well. The time necessary for a
learner to develop professional proficiency in each language-proven again
and again over a half century of language teaching-cannot be shortened
appreciably. FSI has tried to
shorten programs, and it has not succeeded.
makes a difference. For rapid learning, basic classroom groupings of six students at
lower proficiency in cognate languages like French or Spanish are the
maximum. For non-cognate languages and at advanced levels, a class size of
three or four is the most efficient. Occasional one-on-one language
learning is highly beneficial for almost all learners--it intensifies time
on task, increases interaction opportunities with a native speaker, and
provides security for learners to try out aspects of the language they are
not confident about--but strictly
tutorial training is not the
best solution for the majority of learners, who benefit from collaborating
and interacting with classmates.
practice of some kind, including "drills," appears necessary for almost all
language learners to develop confidence and build towards automatic language
Intensive immersion experiences (in the community or
in-country) where only the target language is used, have great pay-off in
morale, motivation, perception of skill and stamina in using the
language. They appear to have the
greatest payoff at upper intermediate to advanced proficiencies, despite
what some published research has suggested.
no substitute for simply spending time using the language. Segalowitz and his
colleagues pointed out how crucial to reading ability is the simple fact of
doing a lot of reading (e.g., Favreau and Segalowitz 1982). Our experience at FSI indicates
unequivocally that the amount of time spent in reading, listening to, and
interacting in the language has a close relationship to the learner's
ability to learn to use that language professionally. The Chancellor of the Defense Language
Institute recently emphasized a similar point about DLI's students when he
said: "The single most
significant factor in language acquisition is time on task.
Lesson 5: A learner's knowledge
about language affects his/her
All else being equal, the more that learners already
know that they can use in learning a language, the faster and better they
will learn. The less they know that
they can use, the harder the learning will be.
Government language educators are all familiar with the
language categories that FSI and the Defense Language Institute have
developed and that are summarized in Figure 2 of your handout. The categories indicate gross differences
in how hard it is for adult native speakers of American English to learn
different languages. For example,
FSI's three categories indicate that Spanish-a Category One language-- is
among the easier languages for English speakers to learn; Japanese is among
the hardest; and Hungarian and Thai are among those in the middle.
Two things need to be
understood about these categories.
First, they are entirely
a-theoretical, being based solely on the time it takes our learners to
learn these languages. Second, the categories do nonetheless reflect various
parameters of linguistic distance. Simply said, the more commonalties a
language shares with English-whether due to a genetic relationship or
otherwise--the easier and faster it is for an English speaker to learn that
language. (Cf. Child, 2000)
The length of time it takes to learn a language well
also depends to great extent on similarities between that language and any other languages that the learner knows well. The more dissimilar a new language is--in
structure, sounds, orthography, implicit world view, and so on--the longer
For knowledge of one language to really be of help in
learning another, however, it needs to be at a high level. A government interagency group determined
that this kind of advantage kicks in at a 3-level proficiency or better.
Below that, it does not appear to make any useful difference.
Nonetheless, it is indisputable that transfer phenomena
are important in adult language learning.
Overt declarative knowledge of linguistic and
grammatical concepts also appears to help many adult learners to be able to
progress faster and more surely.
Such concepts may include such basic ones as subject, predicate, or preposition,
but also more language-relevant concepts like tone, aspect, palatalization, case, and topicalization. Knowing such concepts increases the
accessibility of such resources as reference grammars, textbooks, and
dictionaries, and also serves an important purpose in making the learner
aware of types of language phenomena to watch for. Because of this, several FSI language
programs have put together short written guides to grammatical terminology
and concepts to help learners to tune in to the language.
Lesson 6: If a
learner already has learned another language to a high level, that is a
great advantage, but if s/he doesn't know how to learn a language IN A
CLASSROOM, that is a disadvantage.
Prior formal language study makes a difference, no
matter how remote. That is, knowing
how to learn a language in a formal setting helps the learner, both
cognitively and affectively. In
contrast, bilingualism acquired
naturally as a child does not,
in and of itself, appear to aid in learning a third language in a classroom
We see individuals on a regular basis who know exactly
what they have to do in order to
learn a new language. Some of them
are so good that they are astounding, and yet they are each different. Earl Stevick made this point by
describing seven such people-each with very different learning
approaches--in his wonderful book Success
with Foreign Languages.
Richness of background knowledge and experience also
appear to have a marked influence on how well and how quickly adults learn
a new language. Part of this is
probably a matter of having things to talk about. A wonderful teacher whom one of us met
upon joining FSI, now retired, said seriously, "This is the greatest
job in the world. All I do is spend
every day teaching a bunch of very smart and interesting people how to tell
me in my language everything that they know!"
Lesson 7: The importance of
"automaticity" in building learner skill and confidence in
speaking and reading a language has been undervalued.
Successful language learning
requires "stretching" learners some of the time through "i
+1"- type tasks. Yet it is also important to build up processing
skills by varying the pace and giving learners some tasks that they can
perform easily. This is particularly
important in intensive programs, where students can feel constantly
confronted with new aspects of language to deal with.
It is probably for this reason that many of our
students desire pattern practice - a technique which has survived along
side of Communicative, Task-based, and Natural approaches. We have learned
that if an adult says that he needs something in order to learn, the
chances are very good that he's right.
Pattern Practice is not the only way of developing
automaticity, of course. Nor is it
sufficient in itself to accomplish that goal, but it does help many of our
learners to begin to develop it.
The importance of promoting automaticity is true for reading as well as speaking and
listening. Adults need to read considerable amounts of "easy"
material in order to build up stamina and to automatize processing skills.
Segalowitz and his colleagues have shown us that repeating relatively easy
tasks is crucial to developing reading skill. Our work at FSI has also
shown that, for an adult, learning to process a completely foreign writing
system automatically enough to focus on comprehension appears to take much
more time and effort than many reading researchers had once thought. (Cf. Red 2002.) Without a significant
degree of automaticity, reading is a painful decoding process, with little
cognitive energy available for understanding and interpretation.
Lesson 8: Learners may not learn a linguistic form
until they are "ready", but our experience indicates that
teachers and a well designed course can help learners become ready earlier.
Over the last 15 years,
researchers like Long, Chaudron, and others have concluded, partly on the
basis of the ground-breaking work on developmental sequences by Pienemann
and his colleagues, but also on the indisputable fact that it is not
possible to "teach" the complete grammar of any language, that,
and I quote Craig Chaudron, "the structural syllabus is intellectually
bankrupt". While we understand and we appreciate the reasons for this
claim, it is not supported by our experience.
Diane Larsen-Freeman (1991) has written, with
regard to "readiness" to learn, "It may not be reasonable
for teachers to expect students to master aspects of the language which are
too far beyond their current stage of development." With this we
completely concur, but our experience also
is that it is possible for a teacher to increase learners' awareness of
aspects of the language that they might not otherwise have attended to. Rod
Ellis (1997) has speculated that some explicit instruction of grammatical
forms can help learners develop awareness of the forms before they might
otherwise do so and thereby become ready to learn them sooner.
We fully agree that it is not possible to
present learners with the complete grammatical system of a language, but it
is possible to describe and
present in a sequenced way a very significant core of that system-and doing
so helps most adult learners. The
kind of "structural syllabus" that we have in mind is not one in which learners are
expected to "master" an element of the grammar before moving on
to a new element, but rather one in which salient aspects of the language
are focused upon, practiced, used, and then returned to as often as
necessary during the program. Our
syllabus is also one that fosters incidental
learning by each student.
In contrast to Ellis (2002), at FSI, we find
more and more that early focus
on form makes an important difference-not focus on form at the expense of
use or meaning-but focus that helps learners to develop awareness of
significant aspects of the language which they will need later in order to
capture precise distinctions in meaning. For example, English-speaking
learners of tonal languages like Thai and Chinese do not attend to phonemic
tone distinctions readily unless a "focus on form" has made the
distinctions salient. Similarly, in highly inflected languages, such as
Russian or Finnish, significant meaning is encoded in affixes at the ends
of words and must be attended to. Students learning Russian must literally
choose from 144 possible endings for each noun, adjective, demonstrative,
and pronoun they wish to utter. In both of these examples, it is not possible for the learner not to make a choice. To utter any
word in Thai entails giving it a tone; to say a noun in Russian requires the
choice of a case inflection. Failure to pay attention to such forms in
speaking, reading and listening will lead not just to a foreign accent, but
to serious misunderstanding.
We fully agree that instructed input does not
automatically become learner intake, but without explicit
consciousness-raising of formal aspects of the language, those aspects may
be learned too slowly-or not at all. Because of FSI's specified time
constraints, it just does not work to let structures "emerge"
naturally when they want to, as some have appeared to have urged. Henry
Widdowson (1982) wrote the following: "The whole point of language
pedagogy is that it is a way of short-circuiting the slow process of natural discovery and can make
arrangements for learning to happen more easily and more efficiently
than it does in 'natural surroundings.'" (Emphasis added.)
And this leads us to the next point:
Lesson 9: In order to attain very high levels of
proficiency, learners need to be helped to "notice the gap"
between their current production and the speech of more proficient users.
Our experience very much agrees with the findings of
research reports of the last 6-7 years that provide strong evidence that a
clear "focus on form" is essential to enable adults to achieve
the precise and articulate use of language required to participate
effectively in academic, professional, and some vocational
communication. (See, especially,
Hinkel & Fotos 2002:5).
We use several different kinds of activities to
encourage focus on form, including translation and transcription asks,
comparisons of texts, and direct feedback to the learner. We were impressed by the research by
Panova and Lyster (2003) in the most recent TESOL Quarterly which compares
the effectiveness of different types of error correction.
This need is especially acute in the training of many
"fluent non-beginners" -students who perhaps majored or minored
in the language, and/or lived for an extended period in the country and who
attained communicative fluency, but without grammatical or lexical
accuracy. One typical example is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who spent
2-3 years using the language in the country and who developed fluency and
near native-like idiomaticity. Very
often, such individuals do not have the nuanced control of the language
necessary for such professional work as explaining American policy,
questioning someone in detail, taking part in cultural seminars, or being
interviewed by the press. And as a
result, their language usage does not have the effect that they require. At
the same time because they are recognized as fluent and idiomatic, the need
to improve may not be apparent to them.
(See Clifford and Higgs.)
In some such cases, we have to, in a sense, help
the learner to "take the machine apart and put it back together
again." That is-to become sufficiently aware of their production that
they are able to notice how it differs from truly professional-level
speech. This often also involves
needing to speak less fluently at first, in order to-excuse the expression-monitor
their output for the needed accuracy.
Our observed reality in this important respect directly contradicts
Lesson 10: A supportive, collaborative, responsive
learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and teacher-made
resources, is very important in fostering effective learning.
Madeline Ehrman (1998) has observed that
end-of-training comments from students after six to ten months of intensive
training at FSI typically mention their teachers as the factor that
contributed most to their success in learning. The consistency of such
comments is striking. Ehrman writes, "Although [students] often
mention as positive forces well-designed textbooks and a suitable
curriculum, their true enthusiasm is reserved for their teachers and the
relationships the teachers establish with them." The ultimate goal of language training is
to develop learner autonomy, so that individuals can use the language
effectively outside and after the classroom. Ehrman describes this development
as an intensely interpersonal process between teacher and students, which
is accomplished through such relationships. "Even gifted learners need
supportive teachers or mentors. Few
people, including adults, can undertake self-directed learning without
encouragement and feedback."
The teacher's ability to empathize, help the students manage their
feelings and expectations, and tune interventions appropriately to the
emotional and developmental states of the learners, are key factors in many
successful learning outcomes.
Effective language teachers find ways to provide
learners with support and scaffolding when they need it, and to remove the
scaffolding when the learners no longer need it. This is true in small ways as well as in
The job of language teaching at FSI is to create
environments in which each student is able to learn the language
efficiently and successfully. If one kind of environment does not work with
a particular group of students, then we find another one that does. The
model that we try to implement is one in which students, instructors, and
program directors take
collaborative responsibility for the students' learning.
11: The most effective language teaching responds appropriately to where
the learner is and what he or she is trying to do.
Donald Freeman (1989)
and other leaders in the field of language teacher education have described
language teaching as a series of complex decision-making processes based on the teacher's awareness and
understanding of what is going on with the learners and the interplay of
the teacher's own attitudes, knowledge, and repertoire of skills. In this
very helpful model, language teaching is not seen as a
"methodology" or a set of "behaviors," but rather the
ability to make and carry out appropriate decisions.
To make good decisions,
our teachers have to know our students intimately: their jobs, learning preferences, language learning
background, and home situation.
To help us in obtaining this
information, at the beginning of our courses we administer a series of
diagnostic self-validating questionnaires to each learner and then we meet
with them individually about the results and discuss what those results
might imply about the student's learning style preferences. At the same time, we ask each learner to
contact his predecessor at post to find out as much as possible about the
nature of the job and to bring that information back to us. Teachers and other members of our staff
schedule regular and frequent meetings with each student to discuss
learning progress and how the learner feels about her learning.
Lesson 12: Conversation, which on
the surface appears to be one of the most basic forms of communication, is
actually one of the hardest to master.
A seasoned Foreign Service officer, who had learned
several languages to a high level, was overheard to remark that engaging in
conversation--particularly in multiparty settings--was the ultimate test of
someone's language ability.
For many of our graduates, a fundamental part of
their work involves taking part in ordinary conversations with host country
officials and community leaders on a variety of personal and professional
topics. Yet of all the tasks
graduates carry out at post in the foreign language--articulating policy,
conducting interviews, managing offices and local staff--ordinary
conversation is the one area of language use in which they almost
unanimously claim to experience the most difficulty. They note specifically problems following the threads of
conversations in multi-group settings such as meetings. Many officers report that they would much
rather give a speech or conduct an interview than be the only non-native
surrounded by native speakers at a social engagement such as a dinner party
or reception (Kaplan, 1995).
Strikingly, such reports seem to contradict some
of the assumptions of the language proficiency level descriptions of the
Interagency Language Roundtable and ACTFL, which relegate "extensive
but casual social conversation" to a relatively low level speaking
skill while assigning "professional language use" and certain
institutionalized forms of talk to a higher level.
The properties of ordinary social
conversation that language learners need to practice include:
following rapid and unpredictable turns in topic,
displaying understanding and involvement
producing unplanned speech
coping with the speed of the turn-taking
coping with background noise.
Participants in a conversation
must at once listen to what their interlocutor is saying, formulate their
contribution, make their contribution relevant, and utter their
contribution in a timely way, lest they lose the thread of the conversation
- and the attention of their interlocutor. Unlike most other typical
face-to-face interactions, no individual can successfully
"control" a free-wheeling multi-party conversation.
In a sense, conversation is more about listening than about speaking. This is especially the case when you are
either trying to determine where your interlocutor might stand on certain
important issues or are searching for an opportune moment to make a
particular point. It is even more
the case when you're trying to understand peripheral conversations - what
they're talking about in the conversation going on next to you at the table.
Listening is a part of conversation: active listening - showing your
interlocutor that you understand, that you hear him, that you care. In the post 9/11 world, it is all the
more important for our officers to use FL skills to establish relationships
with individuals - not just with institutions - in order to build support
overseas for our programs and point of view. Good listening helps to make
our message understood by a broader audience.
Let us take a couple of moments here to reflect and sum
First, we hope that this talk will not be taken as yet
another round in a fight between "researchers" and
"practitioners." We at FSI
value the results of research highly.
Indeed, we wish often that we had more time and opportunity in our
own programs to investigate formally certain research questions.
We have shared with you here some of what we at FSI have
learned from our experience of training American government employees to go
overseas and use the languages of those countries to carry out sophisticated
professional tasks. One of the
prerequisites for us to do that is that we know what those tasks are going to be. We are training people to do things in
the language that we have researched pretty thoroughly. This, in fact, is one of the reasons that
we often talk about "language training" at FSI, rather than
"foreign language education."
In academic institutions, it is not always possible to identify with
such clarity what different learners are going to be doing with the
language. Indeed, much of the time,
the students may not know themselves, although we would expect that those
of you involved in teaching English for Academic Purposes may find our
description of FSI learners rather familiar.
Another probable difference between our context and many
of yours is the tremendous urgency that we face with each class in every
language to get them to the required proficiency level as quickly as
possible and send them on out to post.
Every day that our students remain in language class is a day that
they are being paid a substantial salary to get ready to do their assigned jobs, and not yet to do
them. It is for this reason that our
classes are as small and intensive as they are.
Despite the existence of differences between our
institution and many of yours, though, we would like to suggest that the
practical day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year experience of training
institutions like the Foreign Service Institute offers data that are
informative for anyone thinking seriously about adult language learning.
The 12 lessons that we have presented for your
consideration here should not be thought of as carved in stone and
immutable. We and our Language
School colleagues are
constantly seeking opportunities to reflect on what we observe in our
classes in the light of both current published research and of our own
We hope that our experience under the special FSI
conditions may offer you a useful perspective. At the same time, we will continue to
look to you (researchers in applied linguistics) to help us to gain new
insight into the nature of language use and into language learning and
Some of the recent research seems especially exciting to
us. For example, we have been
energized by the recent research into the place of grammar instruction in
formal classroom teaching that was kicked off by Doughty and Williams
(1998). Another area that shows
tremendous promise for us is corpus linguistics and computer-assisted SLA - research based on the actual use of language by
native speakers and learners. We are
closely following the research by Nick Ellis (2002) that suggests a
relationship between observed frequency of language elements in authentic
discourse to learners' success in acquisition. Clearly, this work has
considerable potential for syllabus design.
As corpora are developed for our languages, many of which are not
well documented, we will seize upon them.
There are other research areas that we would also like
to see explored more, such as:
attainment of truly advanced language skills in foreign languages.
listening comprehension - particularly at higher levels, such as
eavesdropping on overheard talk.
reading of alien orthographies. Well over 60 percent of the languages we
teach at FSI do not use the Roman alphabet!
phenomena in language learning, not just from L1 to L2, but from L1 and L2
to L3 and L4-and the interrelationship between developmental and transfer
phenomena in learning.
The announcement last week of the establishment of the
new Center for the Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland
to work closely with the government community on language learning
questions of mutual interest is exciting news for us and, we hope, for the
field. The use of research expertise to explore and find answers to
practical questions-including those suggested above--is an extremely
promising direction for us all.
Practice in Government Language Teaching
Marsha A. Kaplan
Foreign Service Institute
United States Department of State
Mature adults can learn a foreign language well
enough to do professional work in the language (almost) as well as native
Aptitude" varies among individuals and affects their classroom
learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned).
There is no "one right
way" to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single
Time on task and the intensity
of the learning experience appear to be crucial for learning.
A learner's knowledge about language affects learning.
A learner's prior experiences
with learning (languages or other
skills) also affect classroom learning.
"Automaticity" in building
learner skill and confidence in speaking and reading a language is
Learners don't learn a
linguistic form until they are "ready" (but teachers and a well
designed course can help learners become ready earlier).
order to attain very high levels of proficiency, learners need to be helped
to "notice the gap" between their current production and the
speech of more proficient language users.
A supportive, collaborative,
responsive learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and
teacher-made resources, is very important in fostering effective learning.
11. The most effective language teaching responds
appropriately to where the learner is and what he or she is trying to do.
Conversation, which on the surface appears to be one of the most basic
forms of communication, is actually one of the hardest to master.
Government Proficiency Ratings
to satisfy routine courtesy and travel needs and to read common signs and
simple sentences and phrases.
to satisfy routine social and limited office needs and to read short
typewritten or printed straightforward texts.
Professional Proficiency: Able
to speak accurately and with enough vocabulary to handle social
representation and professional discussions within special fields of
knowledge; able to read most materials found in daily newspapers.
Professional Proficiency: Able
to speak and read the language fluently and accurately on all levels
pertinent to professional needs.
Equivalent to an Educated Native Speaker
Figure 2. Approximate
Learning Expectations at the Foreign Service Institute
Class hours to
Category I: Languages closely cognate with English.
French, Italian, Portuguese,
Romanian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian, Afrikaans, etc.
Category II: Languages with significant linguistic
and/or cultural differences from English:
Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi,
Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Latvian, Nepali, Polish, Russian, Serbian,
Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Zulu, etc.
Category III: Languages which are exceptionally
difficult for native English speakers to learn to speak and/or read: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean
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