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LCTL Meeting Summary
Summary of a Meeting on the Less Commonly Taught Languages
In September 1996, the Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) Project of the National Language Resource Center at the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) organized a meeting of teachers of the less commonly taught languages. The LCTL project follows the standard definition of "less commonly taught" by including all languages other than English, French, German, and Spanish. The summit, planned in cooperation with the National Council of Organizations of Less Commonly Taught Languages (NCOLCTL), was convened with the intent of providing LCTL teachers the opportunity to discuss common issues, develop a plan for improving LCTL programs and instruction, and consider the future of LCTL instruction.
Many teachers of less commonly taught languages work in isolation from other teachers of the same language and, often, from teachers of any less commonly taught language. The central goal of both the project and the summit is to encourage communication and cooperation among LCTL teachers and programs.
Sixty-two LCTL teachers and program administrators participated in the summit. Most participants came from large universities across the United States, but there were also representatives from several small colleges, public school programs, study abroad programs, and government agencies. The range of LCTLs represented encompassed almost all of the language families. The more commonly taught LCTLs, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Italian, complemented the much less commonly taught languages, such as Khmer, Pohnpeian, Twi, and Tongan. Participants were members of such organizations as the North American Association of Celtic Language Teachers, South Asian Language Teachers Association, National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs, Chinese Language Teachers Association, and the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, to name just of few. The three half-day summit sessions focused on the current status of LCTL instruction in the United States by highlighting several broad areas. The session topics, subtopics, and general questions that were discussed follow (as outlined in pre-summit publicity):
Before the summit, a 12-item questionnaire was mailed to each participant with the intention that the responses would be summarized during the summit and serve as a starting point for discussions. What follows are highlights gleaned from both the questionnaire responses and notes taken during small group discussions. Complete analytic summaries of presummit questions are available at the LCTL project's web site: http://carla.acad.umn.edu/LCTL/summit.html.
Session A: Promoting and Protecting the LCTLs
In response to questions on enrollment patterns, many of the 40 respondents reported steady or increasing enrollments. This news was especially encouraging as decreasing enrollment often spells the demise of an LCTL program. In fact, programs at many institutions reported increases. A few, mostly those teaching Northern European languages, reported decreasing enrollments. Russian, probably due to the unstable economic and political climate in Russia, also experienced a noticeable drop-off in recent enrollments. The most commonly reported reason for enrolling in LCTL classes, across all languages, was heritage. This included first and second generation Americans who wanted to solidify ties to their culture and be able to talk to their parents and grandparents in the native language, as well as students whose ancestry was more distant but who were interested in discovering more about their roots or ethnicity. Other reasons included an interest in the culture (music, dance), travel plans, work or study abroad opportunities, and friends who speak the language.
A talk by Professor Gilead Morahg, president of the National Council of Organizations of Less Commonly Taught Languages, on why students study Hebrew and how our programs can address students' language learning needs, set the stage for small group discussions on enrollments and on communication among LCTL teachers. Debate centered on whether we should "market a product" and develop courses that meet students' desires, or teach quality courses and assume that students will show up. (The two are not mutually exclusive, but for argument's sake, participants challenged each others' perspectives.) Although not all participants saw trying to increase enrollment as an overarching goal, many suggested ways to achieve that end. Creative ideas included contacting students whose names suggest a potential ethnic interest, launching a national public relations effort, proactive recruitment of heritage seniors, working toward a more flexible class schedule, and taking into consideration the differing skills students bring to a course. Comparisons to the more commonly taught languages drew attention to the time commitment necessary to attain a similar degree of proficiency in an LCTL. Many students expect that after two years studying an LCTL, they will be able to use the language in a wide variety of situations. There was agreement that we as LCTL teachers need to refine and explain our expectations better.
Although questionnaire items on communication elicted information on the means by which LCTL teachers communicate with each other-most notably at conferences or workshops, through e-mail or discussion lists on the Internet, or by mail or telephone-summit discussions looked at ways of improving communication. Suggestions were made for encouraging national teacher organizations to take a leading role in discussing good language pedagogy and increasing communication within and among professional language organizations.
Session B: Pedagogy and Materials
Of 41 respondents to the pre-summit survey question regarding formal or specialized teacher training for language teaching in general or for teaching a particular language, only three indicated they had a degree in foreign or second language education specific to a particular LCTL. Some had participated in workshops, conferences, or summer programs, or taken courses in language pedagogy, applied linguistics, or language education. Eight respondents answered that they had received no training for teaching their particular language.
Most of the respondents to the pre-summit survey did not know of any special training or preparation for LCTL teachers at their institution or elsewhere. Several respondents noted that their universities organized workshops or ongoing courses for beginning teachers. There was indication that many programs hold pedagogical orientations for teaching assistants (TAs) at the beginning of the school year. The TAs are then closely monitored, observed, and provided with feedback on how to improve their teaching.
At the summit, Professor John Means, Director of the National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs, gave a talk outlining his view of teacher training needs in the LCTLs, and Professor Thomas Hinnebusch, of the UCLA Department of Linguistics and UCLA Language Materials Project, summarized issues of instructional material availability and use. Following these talks, small groups worked together on ideas for improving both LCTL teacher education and material availability.
Professionalism seemed to be the overriding concern for LCTL teachers. The suggestion was made, for example, that programs need to train master teachers and learn from other disciplines. Short-term training could be enhanced through summer institutes and in-service and pre-service learning opportunities.
While most teachers reported using textbooks in elementary courses, the general sentiment was that these texts cover grammar and vocabulary and give inadequate attention to culture or a more holistic view of the target language. Many survey respondents indicated that they use a variety of material to supplement a textbook, such as films, television programs, or other video materials. Music, radio programs, and other authentic materials, as well as photographs, slides, and literature are also widely used.
Survey participants agreed that they would like more training in and opportunities for developing their own material, including both print and electronic media. The lack of funding was cited as a major obstacle to beginning and completing these time-intensive activities. A common rallying point was the necessity for LCTL teachers to share information and the materials they are developing.
Session C: Delivery Systems
Questionnaire responses on administrative organization suggested that most institutions group less commonly taught language courses in the same administrative unit with literature courses. Budgets for LCTLs, in most cases, are shared with other LCTLs, but some share with more commonly taught languages. A few teachers reported sharing budgets with area studies programs.
When asked about technology use, participants reported that videotape recorders are the most widely used, followed by audiocassettes and computers. Participants expressed a desire for access to more self-paced computer-based learning aids, better access to the World Wide Web, and e-mail with easier access to foreign language character sets.
Survey answers on how non-traditional instruction could be offered in an LCTL yielded a variety of ways instruction is already being provided in an LCTL, such as correspondence courses in Hebrew through university extension, community education classes in Dutch, and after school and summer school programs in Swahili at the K–12 level. Future plans included distance education courses for Yoruba and for advanced students of Japanese.
A plenary talk by Professor Nina Garrett of the CTW Mellon Project led to discussions on governance structures. Small group ideas included the recommendation that departments encourage LCTL teachers to join professional organizations, perhaps covering membership fees and funding meeting attendance for these teachers. Another suggestion was that we work more cooperatively with the technology experts at our institutions.
Final Session and Recommendations
Themes that recurred in the summit bear repeating here. Communication, within and across LCTL lines, is essential. Sharing resources and material is crucial. Establishing ourselves as professionals, with recognition for our work in and outside of the classroom, should be a goal for everyone. Release time from departments to develop instructional material that can be shared with colleagues in other LCTL departments is one example of how an institution can show a meaningful commitment to the LCTLs.
The discussions and attempts at improving LCTL teaching will continue at next year's meeting, organized by NCOLCTL, to be held at the University of Wisconsin.
The full report of the summit will be available from CARLA (1313 5th St. SE, Suite 111, Minneapolis, MN 55414) and on the World Wide Web (http://carla.acad.umn.edu/LCTL/lctl.html). Addresses of all organizations mentioned are also available at that LCTL web site.