World Language Target Language Usage 90% Goal: Why?

One of the six best current instructional practices and the most important as prescribed by the national world/foreign language organization called ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) is for students to hear and use the new or target language at least 90% of class time. All world language teachers in PWCS have posters listing the 6 tenants of effective world language teaching and that is the first one. Why?

In former years the methodology was called, grammar translation (self-explanatory in its approach) in the 1940s and 50s, then audio-lingual (rote memorization of dialogs) in the 1960s and 70s, to communicative competence (some manipulation of words, questions and responses in structured sometimes artificial situations) in the 1980s and 90s, and finally to the proficiency-oriented or performance-based approach (authentic, real-to-life, and practical situations and use emphasizing communication over accuracy) at the turn of the century till now.

Many parents of our students were “products” of the former methods which failed to prepare students to communicate, the number one reason students want to learn another language. Hence, parents primarily did robotic “drill and kill” exercises such as matching, fill-in-the-blanks, and reciting and writing of verb conjugations, and word for word translations of isolated disconnected statements and artificial contexts. English dominated the class time with the teacher “talking about” the language, such as the rules of grammar with limited to no application of the vocabulary to authentic daily speech and situations. The results predictably were student disappointment, boredom, dislike of WL classes, and feedback something like, “I can’t say anything more than Hello and How are you or anything after three years of study.”

We have since realized that the process to learn a second or third language is similar to learning our first language. Babies produce the language they hear. It is a simple concept. Students, also, produce what they hear and read, called “input.” If a student only hears English, they will not be able to automatically use Arabic, Spanish, French or another language. They will use English. However, that is not our goal nor the curriculum. What they produce or the “output” demonstrated by writing and speaking, will be what the input/practice was. Therefore, this is the reason why world language teachers today must use the new or target language as much as possible, BUT it also has to be comprehensible or understandable without English translation.

How? By using visuals, body language, repetition of key vocabulary in simple, natural sentences and questions while always spiraling or adding more vocabulary in building their communication skills. Students in today’s world language classes should be practicing asking and answering questions, repeating to one another or what is called “Turn and Talk” 80% of class time. THEY have to be using the vocabulary and grammatical concepts in practical situations and “speaking and communicating all the time, being actively engaged in USING the new language. When speaking at a beginning level for example, the teacher will use what is called “teacher talk” which is slowing down the speed, still natural but focused on using the new vocabulary in order for students to hear those words or have that “input” before being able to produce it. This follows the natural process for learning any language.

Therefore, PWCS world language teachers will create lessons where the new language dominates what students hear, read, speak, and write 90% of class time. After a short while, students will begin to understand more and more and the best reward is that they will be able to speak and communicate more than probably their parents ever did, unless they were fortunate to have a teacher who used our current methodology years ago. Our goal is for PWCS students to be able to use their new language with peers throughout their school community and the broader international community. That is the excitement and reward of becoming bi- or multi-lingual.

For more information, please follow the link to our national organization’s position statement about target or new language usage.