FROM VISION TO REALITY: CELEBRATING THE CHALLENGE
Keynote Address � MaFLA/CTCOLT Conference
October 26, 2001, Springfield MA
Many thanks to Debbie Roberts for the lovely introduction, and to MaFLA and to CT COLT, for the privilege of addressing you tonight. A great deal of effort has gone into the production of this meeting. If you have chaired or planned a conference, you know what it takes�so let�s have a round of applause for the visionary and dedicated work of Debbie and the two COLT chairs, Vincenza Mazzone-McNulty and Kathy Sinisgalli!
Special congratulations to you also for holding a successful event at a time when corporate America is canceling its meetings all over the country. Thank you for your courage and your commitment. I hope you will come to the ACTFL Conference in Washington DC three weeks from now, too, and that the Northeast Conference in New York next April is already on your calendars. I appreciate President Bush�s recommendation that we get out to the mall and shop, but it�s gratifying that teachers like you are still putting their money and time into professional development.
Finally, and more seriously: I am sure that there are, in the audience tonight, any number of teachers who have become heroes in the weeks since September 11, by helping children to understand and to remain hopeful. The police and fire fighters save lives, but teachers create the future in which those lives will unfold.
And that brings me to the theme of this conference, �Vision and Reality: Celebrating the Challenge.� What happens to vision when reality is so utterly transformed from one day to the next? How can we celebrate challenges that we hardly know how to define? No one will pretend to have the answers to such questions. Yet we feel compelled to do something, to act, and to figure out our role in all of this. And as we read about FBI pleas for speakers of Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi; as we learn that warnings may have been contained in documents waiting on a desk to be translated; as we listen to American voices questioning why ��they� hate us so much�; we realize that our profession could�at long last�seem more valuable or more pertinent to the rest of the country than, say, math and English. Many of us do not know Arabic, unfortunately, but we know more than the social studies folks about how, when, where and to whom it should be taught. Few of us are familiar with Afghani culture, but we are better equipped than the science teachers to approach any new group of people and learn to understand their products and practices through their perspectives. In short, some of the most important skills and types of knowledge that America needs, now and in the future, are our �bread and butter.� They are what we can do best.
And yet, have we been mentioned on CNN? Have people been knocking on our doors? Aside from the highly-publicized FBI search for speakers of Arabic and news stories on cancelled overseas travel, where does foreign language study appear in discussions at the national level since September 11? Former Senator Paul Simon wrote a piece in the Washington Post (10/23/01), but even he mentions only government and university-level foreign language programs. Linguist Dennis Baron likewise mentions only postsecondary language study in his New York Times (10/27/01) essay. Meantime, on Capitol Hill, the House has sent its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to Appropriations�minus the Foreign Language Assistance Program! In a related vein, my office is accustomed to receiving calls from journalists with questions about foreign languages: early language learning, American Sign Language, standards, teacher shortages, and so on. In the six weeks since the terrorist attacks, however, I have been contacted by only one reporter: a gentleman at the Sentinel�Carlisle, Pennsylvania�s daily newspaper�seeking information for an editorial on why so few Americans study Arabic. Furthermore, J. David Edwards, the Executive Director of JNCL-NCLIS, told me that there has been a significant upsurge in contributions to the English First and English as the Official Language of Government organizations in the period since the attacks. Education Week (9/26/01) quotes teachers of government, history, and social studies, but not foreign language. The Chronicle of Higher Education (9/28/01) publishes 32 essays in a special issue called �The Fractured Landscape: Reflections on September 11, 2001, and Its Aftermath,� not one written by a foreign language educator. Finally, Richard Rothstein of the New York Times (9/26/01), praises reforms in the teaching of history, English and �conflict resolution� for �infusing� school curriculums with tolerance. He writes that he feels hopeful about America�s young people, who are the beneficiaries of such reforms. He believes they will find good answers to what he terms �our national plight,� because they are more free of prejudice than their predecessors. I combed his essay for any reference to foreign language study, but found none.
I wonder whether you are encountering this same neglect of our viewpoints and potential role in the crisis, too.
We could ask, in frustration, �Why is that? Why has this crisis not pushed America to see the value of knowing someone else�s language (the enemy�s, for example)?� That�s what we might call a �reality question.� The �vision question� might instead be �What will we do about it?�
Are you ready to learn Arabic? Probably not a bad idea: you and I are good language learners, and some of the languages and cultures we teach have been or are intertwined with the cultures of Arabic speakers. On the other hand, even for a good learner, achieving usable levels of a language like Arabic is going to take some time. What can we do in the more immediate future?
I�d like to propose one possibility. And I�d like to introduce it through a few anecdotes.
The first anecdote is called �Gabe spends a semester �down under�.� Gabe is my eldest son, and when he reached his junior year in college, he decided to study overseas. He had already lived in a culture where another language was spoken�by the way, this is still referred to reproachfully by both my sons as �That time you forced us to spend a whole year in France!��so Gabe wanted, this time, to go to an English-speaking country, and he chose Australia. Through the miracle of e-mail, my husband and I were treated to the �blow-by-blow� version of Gabe�s time in Sydney. Amazingly enough, his emotions, his efforts to interpret what he experienced, his adjustment patterns, and even his health history while in Australia were exactly what one would have predicted for a student in a non-English-speaking environment. More than once, he wrote to us that he could�of course�understand literally the words people were using, but that he could not always grasp their significance. Many expressions he considered perfectly innocuous seemed to lead to fights in bars, for example. He was also astonished that Australians knew he was a �Yank� even before he opened his mouth. In general, speaking �the same language� didn�t help him nearly as much as he thought it would.
The second story comes from an interview I conducted with the Dean of a School of Education. The Dean herself had never studied a foreign language, since she was tracked as a business student in high school. Student teachers from her south central Pennsylvania university are often placed in urban and rural schools, where a growing percentage of the children are native speakers of languages other than English and have limited English proficiency. There are predictable tensions in many of the communities. When I asked the Dean what role she thought foreign language teachers (and student teachers) might play in their schools, she told me that the role they could play and the role they were playing were two different things. �As foreign language teachers, they could really help the community to understand and cope with cultural differences,� she said. And, she continued, �I don�t mean differences between American culture and German or Japanese culture�I mean differences between one American culture and another. There are a lot of people in schools these days who are dealing with those differences�principals, guidance counselors, school nurses, for example�and they don�t have the tools you language teachers have.�
These examples may suggest that knowledge of other cultures, the skills of cultural analysis, the tools of cross-cultural understanding, and the characteristics of a bicultural person are more important than linguistic proficiency to those outside our profession. We know, of course, that the two are not really separable. We know a culture and its people are best understood through its language. But we must also acknowledge that instruction in our courses and programs is generally still organized around grammar and vocabulary�less so, perhaps, among teachers who participate in significant professional development opportunities like this conference, but that is a tiny minority.
At the first New Visions meeting, one of Mimi Met�s original questions was �What if culture were truly at the center of the curriculum?� What if cultural proficiency were the �organizing principle�? I have always considered that question a brilliant challenge to our thinking and a way to move us outside the box. I have always regretted that we did not answer it. Or rather, that the New Visions participants answered it implicitly and precipitously by ignoring it almost from the start. We seemed to have decided �That can�t be done,� before even attempting to imagine what our classrooms, materials, students, programs, and role in education would be like if culture were at the center. And if you�ll allow me some leeway in speculating about the reason for this, I�ll put forth the hypothesis that, standards or no, we haven�t really determined yet what culture is, much less what cultural proficiency is, and still less how to teach for it or assess it. Of course, even the anthropologists disagree on a definition of culture. And I do not mean to say that no one is teaching culture well�in fact, I am privileged to know some extraordinary teachers of culture. Furthermore, our national standards reflect innovative thinking about culture, which I know we will be able to push even further in the future. But as a profession, we have long focused our attention on definitions of linguistic proficiency from which the cultural dimensions are too easily stripped. From the beginning levels, we tend to encourage conversations that are conducted in the target language, but that are American in their style and substance�consider, for example, the frequent requests on FLTeach for help with, say, �the Chinese words for fraternities and sororities� or �the Spanish word for hall pass.� Now, it is understandable that we try to approach early language learning through reference to what is familiar in students� worlds, particularly with our youngest learners. Nonetheless, I worry that we are implicitly building students� expectations that their counterparts in other countries experience realities similar to ours. And that may retard students� ability to figure out why others behave or believe differently than they do, and to define those behaviors and beliefs as logical (which is not the same as merely knowing that there are differences or even �tolerating� or accepting those differences). That ability�the capacity to say, �That behavior wouldn�t be sensible or appropriate for me in my culture, but if I had been raised in their culture, I would act the same way��is one of the skills the country needs us to develop in our language students. We may know about cultural products�we may identify, analyze, and discuss them. Likewise, practices, which we can also demonstrate or participate in. But a perspective must somehow be inhabited. You need to know ways of trying to get into someone else�s shoes or to see the world through their lens. And this is especially important, because one of the things you will see when you attempt to do so is yourself�how you look to them. This is a basis for helping students understand not just the behaviors the culture expects of and inculcates in its native speakers, but also the behaviors it expects of foreigners. It is precious knowledge, and difficult to come by in any discipline other than foreign language.
What I am saying here is that although we face no small task in bringing learners to a high level of language ability�if only because of the effort to keep them motivated enough to continue beyond what is required�perhaps what we are sacrificing is precisely what the educational system and the country need us, in particular, to supply: bicultural citizens. Citizens who have done what David A. Murray, in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education (10/26/01), where he exhorts our country to revive the study of foreign languages, calls �the hard work of engagement with the reality of different cultures.� If we develop the skills of cross-cultural inquiry in our students, they may still be unable to comprehend the mind of a terrorist�whether it be Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden�but they will be equipped to explore the perspectives of people whose cultures have been in part defined by terrorism. Can we afford not to do this? And if we do not do it, who will?
If we put culture at the center, our task as language teachers will be instantly more difficult� and more worthwhile. More challenging� and more rewarding. We will need support from our schools and colleges, from our governments, and from our communities to develop and maintain our own levels of knowledge and to hone our cross-cultural skills. We will need a significant reorganization of curriculums. We will need�even more than we do now�to begin foreign languages in the early years when learners are most open to cultural difference. And we probably all feel too tired and too skeptical to embark on such a journey just now. But how much more tired will we feel if we continue instead to spend our time battling public apathy and ignorance about the value and utility of foreign language study?
In closing, two more brief anecdotes. At the first New Visions meeting in 1999, participants filled out a questionnaire designed to show in which of four categories they felt most competent: human resources, analysis, symbolic representation, or politics. We then moved to the corner of the room designated for our particular category to see where our strengths and weaknesses as a profession lay. There were one or two people in symbolic representation and one person in politics. The other 40 or so were divided between analysis and human resources. We will need to become political, and we will need to appreciate the impact of the symbolic, if we are to claim ownership of our part of America�s story in the coming months and years.
The second anecdote: the Northeast Conference theme for 2002 is leadership. Our keynote address will be given by Chuck Schwahn, a leadership consultant. Chuck has been a teacher, a principal, a coach, and a superintendent, in prior incarnations. He says he is not an expert on foreign language, so he has worked extensively with Northeast Conference authors and Board members in order to address leadership from our perspectives. He told me that his perception of our biggest challenge is that we do not have one concrete purpose as a profession. Donning my JNCL-NCLIS hat, I argued that our purpose was to ensure that all Americans spoke English and at least one other language. He countered that we were not unified in our rationale for that purpose�in other words, we have not answered the question �Why should Americans know at least two languages� with one voice. I would contend that the country�s response to September 11 will depend upon the education of citizens who can do�to quote again, because I cannot say it better��the hard work of engagement with the reality of different cultures.� And that�s a foreign language teacher�s job.
Rebecca R. Kline
Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
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