Topic Thread

Subject: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

1.  ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 01-31-2017 20:52
I have just read ACTFL's newly released position statement defining World Languages.  I appreciate this effort especially in the context of the debate about replacing language requirements with coding courses.  I include the statement here (as posted on ACTFL's site) in case you haven't had a chance to read through it.                                                                           

A world language is a form of communication, essential to the culture of a community, with a system of sounds, letters, symbols, and/or signs recognized and utilized by humans. A world language fulfills all the following criteria, distinguishing it from other forms of communication:

A world language is...

  • a form of human communication used to interact and negotiate meaning with other people, to understand and analyze oral and written texts, and to create culturally-appropriate oral and written products and presentations for a specific audience and task
  • a form of human communication that allows the user to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the products, practices, and perspectives of a particular culture through the language. When speaking a world language, people use intercultural skills, insight, and perspectives to decide how and when to express what to whom.
  • a form of human communication that allows people to exchange information about past, present, and future shared experiences, make arguments, empathize with other people, and creatively express themselves orally, visually, and in writing on a variety of topics.
  • a means of human communication through which people can share stories relevant to the culture and community, whether ancient or modern.
  • a vehicle of human communication through which people may be immersed in a specific language community, whether ancient or modern.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

From my field linguistics and language development background (over 3 decades working in West and North Africa with unwritten languages)...I have one BIG question:  What about languages with a robust oral tradition, but which are not yet written??  I fear this definition stating (and emphasizing) that "all' the criteria need to be met with the first one stating  "oral and written products" leaves out these oral languages.

Any thoughts...especially encouragement that I am mis-reading this?!  I hope to hear that...because otherwise this definition leaves out so many of what I like to think of as the "true" LCTL's - endangered languages spoken by small groups of people, or those spoken by large groups of people who live in isloated areas where few outsiders have had any exposure to the language and no written materials exist - yet. I really don't think it is ACTFL's intention to exclude any viable language as a World Language...but "wrttten' poses a real problem!

2.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-06-2017 21:10
I suspect part of the context is the widespread acceptance of American Sign Language to fulfill academic requirements for a "foreign language." Just as the inclusion of coding classes, the inclusion of ASL in the "second language" category brings into question the rationale for having a world language requirement. If the purpose is largely cultural awareness, perhaps its just as good as a class on American Racial Diversity, or French, or whatever. If the purpose is to learn about language and syntax in something other than English, coding might suffice, and keep science students from having to "waste" credits on Spanish or whatever. But if the purpose is to explore a completely different culture, with its own subcultures, with its own unique language system (not a pidgin or creole or signed version of a preexisting spoken language), and own cultural artifacts, then neither coding or ASL meet the criterion.

A math teacher once half-heartedly proposed including Math in the list of world languages (at another institution) since it is "the universal language of science." I replied it should be considered if a) two people can talk about love in that language, and b) you can point to a cultural artifact in that language that talks about love. He quickly demurred. While some of the languages you alude to may not have written artifacts, you may be able to point to recordings of oral traditions in those other languages. I think that would satisfy the spirit of this position paper. 

Paul Roggendorff
Abilene Christian University

3.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-07-2017 09:41

I am not an ASL expert, but am sure that many in the Deaf community would argue that theirs is a distinct culture within mainstream American society, with its own history, educational system, artistic expression, and so on.

- Judy


4.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-07-2017 18:45
Let me draw attention to the status of American Sign Language (ASL), as expressed by the Linguistic Society of America, one of our foremost professional associations related to language.  They unequivocally declare that ASL is a full-fledged human language, and it is not simply a signed version of a spoken language:  Resolution: Sign Languages | Linguistic Society of AmericaResolution: Sign Languages | Linguistic Society of America   ASL is presumably not considered by ACTFL as it is not a foreign language in the U.S.  Interestingly, though, Spanish does have many native speakers originally from the U.S., yet often gets perceived still as "foreign".  The learning of "Coding" should not be considered equivalent to human language learning because it lacks many of the traits of natural language, especially the humanity.  I also find it a pity that unwritten languages are not included.    

Douglas Lightfoot
Associate Professor
The University of Alabama

5.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-08-2017 01:57
Thank you all for your replies regarding ASL. While I have an opinion about whether ASL does or does not belong in the "foreign language" category in academia's gen ed bureaucracy, I was merely pointing out what I construed might be behind certain wording. I did not intend to get into a debate about ASL. Please excuse me for having touched a nerve in that regard.

Looking at the LSA and ACTFL resolutions, the appearance of a turf war is becoming clearer to me. I think we all agree that coding does not belong in this category, that the adjective "foreign" to qualify "languages" is anachronistic at best (especially when talking about Spanish in the US), and that languages with no written system should not be excluded. But none of these things is a definition of what the category is, fundamentally. Until such time, I don't believe the issue will be settled.

Paul Roggendorff
Abilene Christian University

6.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-07-2017 19:37
ASL is  a real language, with its own syntax, idioms and literature, and there is a real Deaf culture which is distinct from mainstream American culture. No coding language can make a similar claim. Offering foreign language credit for ASL classes is quite appropriate.

Terry Waltz

Terry Waltz, Ph.D.
SquidForBrains Educational Publishing
Mandarin through Comprehensible Input

7.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-08-2017 17:01
The intent of this position statement is definitely to inform the public discussion around languages (and related issues around what counts as language credit for high school graduation or postsecondary admission).  The intent is to clearly include American Sign Language (ASL) and aboriginal or indigenous languages (such as those spoken by First Nations in Canada and Indian Nations in the US).  In all of these communities of language users, culture and language are intertwined.  Thank you all for alerting ACTFL to the small but significant change we need to make to this document, to refer to language as "oral, written, or signed" so that this definition of language will be inclusive, as intended. 


Underscoring this inclusion is the Standards Collaborative Board (the 16 organization body that oversees the national standards for languages, World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages), of which the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) is a member.   As you review the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, you will note the specific reference under “Interpersonal” Communication to “spoken, signed, or written conversations” (see: ).


Paul Sandrock
ACTFL, Director of Education

8.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-09-2017 23:50
Thank you, Paul, for this clarification. Clearly, my inferences about a possible turf war were incorrect. My apologies.


Paul Roggendorff
Abilene Christian University

9.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-10-2017 10:23
This has been a very interesting exchange, and I very much appreciate Paul's final word on the changes to be made to the Position Statement which I think will take care of the unwritten languages concern as well as the ASL concerns.

Good example of team work...and it's a pleasure to work with you all on behalf of speakers of "World Languages" everywhere!

Looking forward to seeing the revised Position Statement,

Elizabeth Barbour

10.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-11-2017 13:08
I echo Betsy’s sentiment. Thanks for the discussion, and Paul, thanks for your attention with this revision matter.

There is still the issue of the “foreign” part of the foreign languages we attend to not necessarily being foreign (ASL, certain ancient languages, Native American languages, Spanish, other heritage languages, and maybe others), but maybe that’s being discussed already. Or it’s waiting for another day. Sadly, I’m not up on these topics.

Warm thanks,

11.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-12-2017 01:20
Ooooooh, touchy subject, no? If you learn a second language in a region in which it's is not generally spoken, you are learning a foreign language.

So, is ASL in middle-of-no-where-USA-no-hearing-impaired second, or foreign? What is it in NYC? Is Spanish in white-suburban Vermont second, or foreign? What is it in southern CA?

I'm guessing that a move to be completely indiscernible would result in a name change from ACTFL to ACTL, which would then include ESL. That's a much bigger scope.

Lance Piantaggini (Teaching for Acquisition-Making Latin & other languages More Comprehensible) (Marching Artistry)

12.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-13-2017 00:58
In Southern California, I think you can consider ASL a World Language.  There are two colleges that offer certificate programs in Interpreting, there are social clubs (such as the Whittier Club for the Deaf) and there are a number of people in the community whose primary language is ASL.  Even our state Standards reflect ASL multiple times.

Tom Beeman

13.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-13-2017 02:02
I think Lance piantagini (sorry, my capital "p" is broken) is quite right; this is a touchy subject. The reason is that we are conflating pedagogical and scholarly definitions and/or descriptions. In terms of pedagogy, the benefit is in learning a "foreign" language, and the benefit has a lot to do with the cultural richness and historical importance of the society of the language being studied.
We traditionally learned foreign languages as an academic field to become more acquainted with our own traditions (Latin being the prime example - it is hard to understand the occidental tradition without knowing at least some Latin). The languages were foreign, but their value was unquestioned. Western foreign languages don't have the same status as Latin, but they are still part of our tradition in the sense that, although foreign, they have directly interacted with and influenced the English-speaking cultural discourse.
With ever more significant immigration from non-Western countries, the question of cultural tradition becomes much more challenging because individual and official cultural traditions are diverging. We still do not have much understanding how such traditions and the main stream interact.
We have also added international or transcultural communication as a goal fairly recently, and this now has led to a wide-ranging debate about what is foreign, what is culture, and what is language. And this has directly led into the frequently-raised question why one should study foreign languages in the first place when "everyone" knows English. Our attempts at pushing business uses and STEM contents have not always worked well. While the "tradition" argument works even if a student does not keep going because language study can be seen as laying a groundwork for understanding phenomena that everyone can encounter in society, the practice-oriented motivation becomes harder to sustain when students have no prospects for travel or direct intercultural encounter.
Our attempts at defining what language truly is become ever more complicated and seem to muddy the waters even further. We can give many reasons for learning a language, but many of them are not easily generalizable for all manifestations of "language" that have been described or defined.

Eckhard Kuhn-Osius

14.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-13-2017 12:38
The reason I appreciate ACTFL's acronym retaining the "Foreign" in its name is for research purposes.  If one does a keyword search to dig up research literature on a particular topic (e.g. my area of specialization is "learning disabilities" and "foreign language learning"), one will find a lot more information than if one enters the term "world language learning" or even just "world language".  That is also why my website and book on this topic are called "Foreign Languages for Everyone" not "World Languages for Everyone."  

Irene Brouwer Konyndyk
Assisant Professor Emerita

15.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-16-2017 20:54

The position statement by ACTFL has done a great service in distinguishing between human language and other languages. It has excluded the languages of DNA genetic code and binary computer coding. It has also eliminated the languages of careful thinking like mathematics and logic. Also valuable is the companion position statement that specifically deals with the Study of World Languages and Computer Science.

I am concerned about the use of the term world languages. Some twenty years ago I was in favor of this term. It came with the proficiency focus of the new state language framework. As the years have passed I have become less sure that world language is a term that supports language acquisition. I cannot really defend its use to non-language colleagues as anything more than a new name. So typical of much of education reform, it comes across as little more than Esso becoming Exxon: it is a new name, but the same old gas.  I have sought my own justification for the name change and have only become more convinced that world language is a change for the worse.

The advantage of the term foreign is that it describes what we are about. Foreign refers to that which is “of, from, in, or characteristic of a country or language other than one's own” (google). My purpose is for my students to become fluent in a language other than their own, and consequently, to engage themselves in a language and culture other than their own.

Objections to the use of foreign cite the apparent anomaly of having a foreign language which is used within a nation’s borders. Thus we read the references to Spanish and ASL in the US. This anomaly disappears,however, when we look at the situation through the learner’s eyes. Spanish may not be foreign at the national level, but it is very much foreign to the learner.


The term world, by comparison, is a little less helpful. If we define world as “of or pertaining to the world” it becomes too inclusive. It includes the very languages that the position statement sets out to exclude.  This term in itself necessitates a position statement to show how it is that some languages which are in the world are not, in fact, world languages. The term foreign does not suffer from this over inclusiveness because foreign language already connotes the types of languages that are described in the position statement.

The major problem with world language is that it includes one’s native language. Neither the position statement nor the term world will prevent our students from studying their native language as a world language.

Two other definitions of “world language” (google) pertinent to this discussion.

  1. an artificial language for international use (e.g., Esperanto)
  2. a language known or spoken in many countries.

Both of these definitions are evident in Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, written by Hungarian interpreter, Kato Lomb.

With regard to the artificial language definition, Lomb relates that in the early “20th century, there was such an abundance of proposed world languages that international panel was called together to choose the most suitable one. Its members… found Esperanto…to be “the best, even if not perfect.” She then comments, “It is still a widespread world language” (p 212). This use of world language is obviously too exclusive for our purposes. Esperanto was created to avoid the learning of multiple languages for communication, thereby rendering superfluous the Kato Lombs of the world. It thus excludes the languages in our course listings.

With regard to the 'many countries' definition, Lomb explains, ““In the spectrum of languages, there have always been those glittering with a more blinding light: the so-called world languages. These are the ones with a larger “radius of action” (p 40). She later states that her native Hungary has no world languages within or at its borders: “Our linguistic isolation is such that we have to learn languages with a large “radius of action” to obtain a passport to the world.” She compares isolated Hungary (isolated from world languages) to “happy Switzerland” which has embraced three world languages within its borders. Whichever language a Swiss chooses, he or she will have an open door to several million speakers” (p 97).

The curious situation with this definition of “world language” is that the term becomes, at the same time, both overly exclusive and overly inclusive. It excludes those languages with a small radius of action (and which may likely be unwritten). Yet it also includes the native tongue of many learners. Most pertinently, both English and Spanish speakers could study their first language and get credit as a world language.

One attempt to avoid this issue is the term LOTE (Languages Other Than English). The advantage is that it is a clear term. The disadvantage is that allows for one’s native language to count as a foreign language for learners whose native language is other than English.

Another possibility is second language. This is superior to LOTE in that it is more general. It allows for any language other than one’s native tongue (or hand in the case of signed languages) and applies to all learners. It is not just specific to native English speakers. This term also connects us to research discussions (second language acquisition). (Irene Konyndyk expressed this concern in regard to the replacement of “foreign language” with “world language.")

Moreover, second language need not imply an upper limit on language learning. It could, instead, be presented as a stepping stone to trilingualism and beyond. Departments could include in their course manuals that "second" language is their goal, and yet they are more than happy to recognize deserving students as "third" and "fourth language learners" on their transcripts.

Furthermore, if we were to describe our departments as Second Language Acquisition departments we would be embedding a clear and desired purpose into our department names, and allowing our name to serve as a principle for guiding what we do in our class rooms and what we discard.

 If we must set aside the use of a clear term like “foreign,” let us choose a term that improves our situation and clarifies our purpose. We need a brand that communicates to those who will not read our position statements.

Nathaniel Hardt

16.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-17-2017 09:57
This has continued  to be an interesting exchange, as contributors this past week have extended the scope beyond 'world languages' (now happily oral, written and/or signed) to foreign, or 'second' (or third, etc) or (I'll throw into the ring) 'native' or 'mother tongue'.

Following up on the several thoughtful considerations of "foreign", the question which comes to my mind and which I address back perhaps to Paul or an ACTFL representative, is why the position statement chose to define 'world languages' and not, as is in the name of the organization, 'foreign languages'?  Placing the focus on foreign languages would have (or at least, 'might' have) avoided the complications which 'world languages' present as Irene suggested and Nathaniel covers in depth in his very informative post. More importantly perhaps, a position statement on foreign languages would have kept the focus on who you/we are by name and mission - ACTFL!  I personally think it also might have narrowed the debate defining 'foreign, culture and language' (which Eckhard, accurately notes as additional challenges) to just 'culture and language' which in our domain are truly worthy of debate...whereas 'foreign' seems pretty simple to me - we can 'just google it' as Nathaniel has done for us! 

Elizabeth Barbour

17.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-19-2017 09:56
I have been following this thread and trying not to get involved in the debate but I need to say my thoughts which you can take as you will. This is neither scientific nor particularly academic in any way. 

However, from a practical standpoint, if you have something "foreign" inside you, the immediate response is "get it out. it doesn't belong and it could cause problems." Whereas if you have something "worldly" or "global' in you that is seen as a positive, something you want to keep and share. While it is fine to use the dictionary and science to define words within our field, as language educators I think we are all on the same page. The concern for me is when addressing those outside of our field. Folks who don't understand or know the importance of what we do and believe. It's that group that has the perception that all things foreign are bad and unwanted. Often times those are people who haven't traveled beyond their comfort zone, perhaps don't own a passport. I'm more concerned about getting them to understand who we are and what we do. For those of us who are on the same page, does a technical definition of foreign vs. world really matter? Similarly, does it matter that our students know how and when to use the correct form of the subjunctive or that it is called a subjunctive? Who is the audience that we are trying to reach with this debate? 

My $.10.


Lauren Rosen
Collaborative Language Program
University of Wisconsin
618 Van Hise Hall
1220 Linden Drive
Madison, WI  53706

608-262-4066 (voice)
608-265-3892 (fax)

18.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-17-2017 17:17
Nathaniel, thank you for this thoughtful contribution! I'm going to chew on this for a while!



Sent from Broca's Area

19.  RE: ACTFL's newly released definition of World Languages

Posted 02-17-2017 20:10
Thanks, Nathaniel, for this very fine analysis of the various terms.  When I look for research literature, I do search the keyword "second language," (as well as "foreign language," of course), but rarely do I search "world language" because in my area, relating to learning disabilities, it just is not used.

Irene Brouwer Konyndyk
Assisant Professor Emerita