Language Learning and STEM Initiatives

By Kelly Davidson posted 01-23-2015 20:28

As we begin the new year, I would like to welcome all of our SIG members—new and established—to the exciting discussions we have begun regarding language, culture, and how they are intertwined.

As you have heard from the conference or related posts through, we are offering opportunities for pedagogy and research grants, as well as webinars and other opportunities that can continue to connect and support members throughout the year.

For this post, I would like to take a moment to address a growing opportunity in our educational systems. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) initiatives are prevalent in K-12 programs and universities around the country. Given this, here is my first question for our members: how does this affect your teaching?

Many believe that this focus takes away from our language instruction. Some also believe it follows that more money is funneled to other initiatives.

However, one can also demonstrate that foreign languages can—and should—play an important part in these initiatives. To be successful in fields such as engineering and corporate technology (for example), students must be well-versed in the language and culture systems associated with the countries who have established headquarters or other offices in the United States and elsewhere.  

Research at many institutions, including Pennsylvania State, has shown that language study positively affects learning and other brain activities in multiple ways: click here.

The number of research studies supporting this and related ideas are too numerous to list in a blog post…but they exist and should be explored. How are students being educated in language and culture at every level? How are the necessary interdisciplinary connections being made that foster the links between language + culture instruction with other fields? How are K-12 schools exploring these connections? How are universities exploring them through advising and teaching?

In my state, there are (at least) 5 international companies that could benefit from undergraduate or graduate cohorts who are well-trained in the foundational language and culture of the enterprise as well as the content knowledge of the specific industry. These companies are also large enough to possibly sustain a language/culture expert to aid employees in identifying important language and culture elements as they conduct their work with those in another country. In other areas of the United States, how is this engagement between content knowledge/skill AND language & culture enacted?

Even if existing schools offer excellent instruction regarding content knowledge, what are the best practices to ensure that these students have a solid foundation in how to learn about the language AND culture of an international company? On whom should this responsibility rest? How can language instructors work with others at all levels of instruction to ensure a deeper understanding of how culture and language affect the success of other endeavors (business, engineering, health care, etc.)? How can related advocacy benefit Pre-K through 8 language learning programs?

Some examples:
(a)  If one is invited to dinner in a Russian household, how many flowers should be offered?
(b)  When should one remove shoes when invited to an Asian household?
(c)  How should one inquire about the Wi-Fi situation in a French home?
(d)  When are cover letters appropriate in different cultures?
(e)  What foods are served on a normal basis…and what types of utensils or techniques should be used at a business dinner?

There are many other questions about language and culture that are directly related to success in the STEM fields. This points to the urgent need to support advocacy for language and culture learning at every level. Please visit the website and click on the “Advocacy” tab to find out how you can contact your state representatives about important budget and theoretical issues.  

It is my hope that this post would be a foundation for discussion and thought regarding the connection between STEM initiatives and those related to language and culture. Please share your ideas and insights!