ERIC Identifier: ED456671
Publication Date: 2001-09-00
Author: Pufahl, Ingrid - Rhodes, Nancy C. - Christian, Donna
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
What We Can Learn from Foreign Language Teaching in Other
Countries. ERIC Digest.
During the last decade, new efforts have aimed at improving foreign language
education in the United States (see, e.g., National Standards in Foreign
Language Education Project, 1999). A recent study concerned with the need to
strengthen foreign language skills among U.S. students examined the successes of
other countries. Conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, the study
collected information from 22 educators in 19 countries about foreign language
instruction in their elementary and secondary schools. The countries represented
in the study are Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic,
Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Morocco, the
Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Spain, and Thailand. Information was also
gathered on China, England, and Hong Kong from comparative education reports.
Study participants responded to a series of questions about language teaching
methodologies, strategies, and policies in their countries that could inform
language teaching in the United States. Answers to the key question, "What do
you think are three of the most successful aspects of foreign language education
in your country?" allowed study researchers to identify eight exemplary
characteristics of foreign language education in the countries surveyed. This
digest examines these characteristics and discusses what the United States can
learn from them.
WHAT WORKS IN OTHER COUNTRIES
An Early Start
Many respondents reported that beginning foreign language study early
promotes achievement of higher levels of language proficiency. Seven of the
countries studied have widespread or compulsory education in foreign languages
by age 8, and another eight countries introduce foreign languages in the upper
elementary grades. In many cases, a second foreign language is offered or
required in the elementary grades. This contrasts starkly with the United
States, where the majority of students who study a foreign language do not start
before age 14.
Well-Articulated Framework Several respondents noted the importance of a
well-articulated curriculum framework that motivates and guides the development
of an effective system of foreign language education. Many European countries
have adapted their foreign language teaching at the national level to the
frameworks and standards articulated by the Council of Europe's language policy
and activities. Modern Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. A Common
European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 1996), developed and revised
over the past decade, has had high impact. The Framework is a planning
instrument that provides a common basis and terminology for describing
objectives, methods and approaches, skills, practices, and assessments in
language teaching, and it is used for planning syllabuses, examinations,
teaching materials, and teacher training programs throughout Europe.
One of the most often cited factors related to excellence in foreign language
education is a well-trained teaching corps. In Morocco, English teachers are
among the best trained teachers in the country. After a 4-year degree in English
from a university or teacher training college, including one year of
specialization in literature or linguistics, students spend a year studying
language teaching methodology and getting practical training.
A crucial factor in teacher quality is the status of the teaching profession,
because it directly impacts the quality of candidates who go into teaching. In
Finland, potential teachers are recruited from among the best high school
graduates. Teaching is a highly valued profession, and admission to
universities, where all teacher education takes place, is very competitive. This
creates a high degree of selectivity and increases the prestige of a teaching
Pre-service training that integrates academic subject studies with
pedagogical studies and teaching practice is considered one of the most
successful aspects of foreign language education in several countries. In some
countries, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, study and work
abroad programs contribute to the high level of language proficiency among
foreign language teachers.
Use of Technology
Innovative technologies and media are frequently cited as a way to increase
access to information and entertainment in a foreign language, provide
interaction with speakers of other languages, and improve foreign language
teaching in the classroom.
"Access to Information and Entertainment." Most respondents, in particular
those from Canada, Denmark, and Thailand, highlighted the importance of the
Internet and specialized databases for information retrieval. In smaller
countries, many television shows are broadcast in a foreign language and
subtitled rather than dubbed. In Denmark, where English is omnipresent through
the many U.S. and British television programs, films, computer games, and music
videos, teachers have developed successful strategies for integrating their
students' informal foreign language exposure into classroom teaching.
"Interaction and Collaboration With Speakers of Other Languages." Access to
information on the World Wide Web and the use of new information technologies,
especially networked computers, has contributed to increased communication among
foreign language teachers and students in many countries. Through e-mail,
mailing lists, discussion groups, and chat rooms, the Internet has increased
access to and communication in the foreign language with both native and
Respondents mentioned several innovative methods for language instruction,
which fall roughly into the categories highlighted below.
"Integration of Language and Content Learning." Learning content-area
subjects through the medium of a foreign language has become increasingly
popular in many of the responding countries. In some cases, a foreign language
is used as the medium of instruction in non-language subjects, frequently at the
secondary school level when students have acquired sufficient proficiency in the
foreign language. In Luxembourg, for example, both German and French are used as
a medium of instruction throughout students' school careers to support
simultaneous learning of both languages. In immersion programs, called
"bilingual programs" in Europe, primary school children are taught subject
matter almost exclusively in a second or foreign language.
"Communicative Teaching Methods." In Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New
Zealand, Peru, and Spain, a focus on communicative and intercultural learning
has not only stimulated a productive discussion of teaching objectives, methods,
and underlying rationales that are now reflected in curricula and textbooks, but
has also resulted in increased oral and written proficiency for their students.
"Focus on Language Learning Strategies." Several respondents reported that a
recent focus on how to learn a foreign language has been important to the
success of language education in their countries. In Denmark, for example,
teachers focus on raising students' awareness of various communication
strategies, including strategies to bridge vocabulary gaps, reading and
listening strategies, and general language learning strategies.
"Building on the First or Subsequent Languages." Particularly in bilingual or
multilingual countries or in those with a large number of language minorities,
respondents stated that successful approaches consider students' first languages
as a foundation upon which to build second language proficiency. In Luxembourg,
several projects demonstrate that acknowledging the sociocultural context and
the already developed competencies of children in their first language will
boost learning of subsequent languages.
"Other Successful Methods." Other notable methods include the sole use of the
foreign language in the classroom; a modular approach to teaching in which
students are grouped according to proficiency level rather than age or grade
level; and project-oriented learning that emphasizes the use of authentic
materials through technology and integrates learning about English-speaking
countries with language and content learning.
A number of respondents mentioned the importance of policy formulation.
Language and education policies at the national, regional, and local levels can
facilitate or inhibit strong language education.
"Language and Education Policies." In Australia, one of the most successful
aspects of foreign language education relates to the National Policy on
Languages (NPL) (Lo Bianco, 1987), which provides a framework for language
education. The NPL has initiated pluralism in the languages being offered,
supported projects for indigenous and first language education, led to policy
development in each Australian territory, and resulted in the near-universal
introduction of languages at the primary level.
"Foreign Languages as Core Subjects." One of the most influential policies
with respect to foreign language learning is the status of languages within the
school curriculum. In all European countries and in Canada, Kazakhstan, Morocco,
and Thailand, at least one foreign language is compulsory for all students.
Several of the educators surveyed highlighted assessment as one of the best
practices in foreign language education in their country. In most of the
countries, nearly all assessment of students' foreign language learning occurs
in the context of specific courses, with grades or credit for completion
assigned by teachers. The only national or regional examinations that include
language proficiency assessments are school-leaving examinations administered at
the end of secondary education. In the Netherlands, there are central
school-leaving examinations developed by a national testing institute and
administered at the end of secondary school. Students attending the
pre-university stream take the exam, which includes achievement tests in three
foreign languages: English, French, and German. Results account for 50% of the
final grade in the subject. A result of these central exams, which are in
accordance with the European Framework, is a coherent approach with respect to
In China, the Matriculation English Test (MET) assesses not only grammar and
lexis but also their use, thus leading to a decrease of rote memorization in
English learning practice (see, e.g., Hamp-Lyons, Hood, Sengupta, Curtis, &
of Heritage, Regional, and Indigenous Languages Several respondents described
programs that teach the mother tongue of speakers of languages other than the
dominant one in their country. These programs contribute to foreign language
success by helping maintain existing language resources in a country and by
fostering achievement among minority populations. Some of the most successful
practices in Canada are found in heritage language programs. The Canadian
federal policy of bilingualism is framed within a context of multiculturalism
that promotes recognition of the value of languages other than English and
French. Several provinces have heritage language programs in their official
WHAT THE UNITED STATES CAN LEARN FROM THIS
education early." The United States needs a national commitment to elementary
school language teaching for all children. The federal government can provide
leadership in developing long-term policies for enhanced teacher training,
incentives for school districts to offer early language instruction, and a
detailed research agenda.
"Learn from others." We need to look outside our borders and learn from the
mistakes and successes of other countries. In particular, we need to look to
countries like ours that have a single official or national language but that
are nonetheless succeeding in developing citizens with bilingual or multilingual
"Conduct long-term research." The U.S. education system can benefit greatly
from the development of a long-term research agenda that incorporates
longitudinal studies of a variety of early language learning models of
"Provide stronger leadership." A stronger and more coherent government-wide
effort is needed to create the atmosphere and opportunity to improve language
education in the United States.
"Identify how technology can improve language instruction." A major question
remains about how successful technology is in improving foreign language
instruction. We need specific research on how technology can best be used to
increase students' proficiency in other languages.
"Improve teacher education." The United States needs to conduct a more
in-depth investigation into how some countries are recruiting high-caliber
students into teaching and providing top quality in-service and pre-service
"Develop appropriate language assessments." The effective assessment
practices used in other countries are worth studying given the salience of
assessment in U. S. education.
"Designate foreign language as a core subject." In districts and schools in
the United States where foreign language study is part of the core curriculum,
there is a more rigorous approach to curriculum development, professional
development, and assessment. Designating foreign language study as a core
subject is essential for a successful program.
"Take advantage of the sociolinguistic context." American educators need to
take advantage of the sociolinguistic context in which we live by promoting the
learning of languages spoken by indigenous groups and by immigrants and refugees
in this country, as well as by our neighbors in Canada and Mexico.
Compared to students in much of the world, U.S.
students lag far behind in their foreign language capabilities. The study
discussed in this digest has provided valuable insight into successful foreign
language education in other countries. The United States can learn a great deal
by studying these successes and using the information to implement practices and
policies that will support the development of better foreign language education
and a higher level of foreign language proficiency among our citizens.
Council of Europe. (1996). "Modern languages. Learning, teaching, assessment:
A common European framework of reference." Strasbourg, France: Author. Available
Hamp-Lyons, L., Hood, S., Sengupta, S., Curtis, A., & Yan, J. (1999).
"Best practices: A literature review of effective instructional design and
learner processes in acquiring second/foreign language at primary and secondary
levels." Hong Kong: Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Department of English.
Lo Bianco, J. (1987). "National policy on languages." Canberra: Australian
Department of Education.
National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project. (1999). "Standards
for foreign language learning in the 21st Century." Lawrence, KS: Author.