A world language is...
Thursday, January 26, 2017
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: http://www.actfl.org/publications/all/world-readiness-standards-learning-languages ).
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.
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.