Skip to main content

Initiative fosters teacher training in less commonly taught languages

October 6, 2006

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded the University of Wisconsin–Madison Language Institute and the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages (NCOLCTL) a three-year, $345,000 grant to launch the National Online Less Commonly Taught Languages Teacher Training Initiative.

The project aims to improve instruction in less commonly taught languages, defined as all world languages other than English, French, German, Italian or Spanish, by providing better teacher training. The initiative is being directed by Sally Sieloff Magnan, a professor in the UW–Madison Department of French and Italian; and Antonia Schleicher, a professor in the UW–Madison Department of African Languages and Literature.

According to Schleicher, these languages are often underrepresented and marginalized in the U.S. system of education despite their social, strategic or economic importance.

Promoting proficiency in diverse world languages and cultures has become a national priority in the increasingly interconnected and globalized world of the 21st century. The languages spoken by the majority of the world’s population, however, are not typically taught in U.S. schools: Approximately 91 percent of students in the United States who study a foreign language at the postsecondary level choose French, German or Spanish. Only 9 percent study less commonly taught languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili or Yoruba, among many others.

The potential for developing American proficiency in these vital languages is threatened by an extreme shortage of trained teachers at all instructional levels. At the college level, where most instruction in these languages currently takes place, native speakers without teaching preparation or experience are often recruited as instructors.

At UW–Madison, the departments provide initial professional development and supervision of these novice teachers, but with the diversity of languages involved, it remains difficult to offer language-specific methodological training. Nationally, many institutions cannot provide even this basic professional development.

Because there are few instructional materials in many of these languages, these novice instructors are often also required to develop curricula and programs from the ground up. Magnan says, “This situation contrasts sharply with what happens in French, German or Spanish, where commercial publishers are heavily invested in material preparation and where academic departments have developed more extensive systems of professional development and support for new instructors.”

To address the critical national need for improving teacher preparation for less commonly taught languages, the initiative will develop a series of online teaching methodology courses for postsecondary instructors. The courses will address topics such as theories of language teaching and learning, and the role of culture in language learning.

Through video-based exemplars of classroom teaching practices, novice teachers will reflect on teaching practices of model instructors, as well as on their own practices, attitudes and beliefs about teaching and learning languages. By taking these online courses, novice teachers will thus be mentored by “master teachers” affiliated with the NCOLCTL and UW–Madison. Through the Internet, they will enter a new professional community of practice that will nurture their professional development.

“This initiative makes a valuable contribution in meeting this national need by addressing a serious deficit in foreign language instruction in the United States and providing a thoughtful, pragmatic and long-term solution to the problem,” says Gilles Bousquet, dean of International Studies at UW–Madison.

The UW–Madison Language Institute supports collaboration in research, education and community outreach in world languages, literatures and cultures. The Language Institute is an initiative of the UW–Madison College of Letters and Science, with substantial support from the Division of International Studies.

The National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages seeks to increase the number of Americans who choose to learn one or more of the less commonly taught languages, to improve the teaching and learning of these languages, and to strengthen the profession through enabling members to work toward shared solutions to common problems.