Teaching a Second Language: how science can inform curriculum and pedagogy

Since we first started our school, one set of parents has been quite insistent that we should be teaching a second language. Now in principle this seems to be self evident all modern curricula have a second language programme. We did not start with a second language programme in our first year because frankly we had other fish to fry. Like establishing a time table, getting our safety processes established and ordering our relevant resource books. However, those parents were insistent and then we started to ask the question ‘why’?

Why should we be teaching a second language? What was the worth of a second language for a child in today’s modern world? Bear with me because the answers are not actually as obvious as they may first seem.

One set of answers is that a second language is good because we need to communicate with our nation’s neighbours. 

Another potential answer to the question as to why we need to learn another language is in the frequency of global or regional languages spoken. English is of course not the most frequent language spoken (as a first language) but it is (in sheer numbers), Mandarin, Spanish and then it is English. 

Perhaps one could argue for a language that has significant ‘impact’ or ‘influence’ to a person living in a country. So for children in Fiji that could easily mean French (about a third of the Pacific speak French as the language of ex-colonials, but of course more immediate than French would be (Bauen) indigenous Fijian, (Fiji) Hindi, Rotuman, Rabi and Cantonese – not necessarily in that order. 

For global influence or impact, one could argue easily for learning languages in emerging nations which would of course include Mandarin but it could also include Cantonese (Hong Kong is still a major trading gateway to China), Russian, Portuguese & Hindi to represent the emerging economies of China, Russia, Brazil and India. Or one could argue for national languages of current economic traders so we should be concerned with German, Japanese, Korean

A common reason given to learn a second language is to be able to speak to our immediate national neighbours. Here in Fiji that would include either Tongan, Samoan and Bislama/Wantok for our neighbours of Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

Now that we’re confused about which second language to choose, we need to consider to what level of language proficiency we need to educate our children. Should they be fluent, conversational, can read and write in the language, or be aware of the literature of the second language? To some extent that depends to what use the second language will actually be used. If you want to be an art critic of literature of the second language, you need to have a foundation in their literature. If you need to ask for directions from the bus station, you need vocabulary but not necessarily an awareness of the literature. 

No wonder then that there is confusion about (i) whether we should be teaching a second language; (ii) which language; and (iii) to what level of proficiency. In these situations, it seems to pay to confer with the specialists in the field of languages – linguists. It’s taken me half way through this essay to get to my main point which is that research can help to inform us as to what to put into a curriculum, and how to do so.

One area that seems to be clear in psycho-linguistics is that people who are able to speak more than two languages, have a part of their brain activated compared to the single language speakers (monolinguals) which stays dormant. What is not so clear is whether this is a ‘significant’ part of the brain or not that is being used. One (albeit slightly controversial) theory suggests that the language we speak influences the way we perceive the world; which in turn may suggest that bi-linguals can potentially see the world in a broader way than monolinguals, which in turn may suggest a more open and flexible mind

However, I think the best argument I’ve heard for a second language comes from a former linguistics colleague (and friend) Dr. France Mugler a distinguished and published linguist, who explained that pragmatically we can expect our children to have to cope with language, and therefore cultural, barriers because of our increasingly globalised world. Our children are almost bound to encounter significant work colleagues and social acquaintances whose native language is different from those of our children. In other words many of our children will be working with people whose second language is not English. These future conversations might go something like this:

Our Child: ‘We need to send the schematics for the turbine to our clients this morning.’.

Global Work Colleague: ‘Excuse - what is turbine?’

Our Child: ‘It’s a fan that is enclosed in a housing that draws a liquid or gas through it.’

Global Work Colleague: ‘Ah, I understand it is a fan inside a house.’

Our Child: ‘No, it is like a fan with many blades, that is surrounded by a material that makes a tube around the fan. This fan draws the liquid or gas through the tube!’

Global Work Colleague: ‘Ah I understand, this is a fan with many swords and this cuts up tubes so it can work better in liquids or gasses – yes?’

Well you get the idea that our normal language uses many metaphors that don’t always translate well into foreign languages – and visa versa. What we need or want our child to know in this potential future encounter is that their Global Work Colleague is not stupid, or trying to tease them, but is having problems with translating the metaphors and similes used; and the best way, Dr. Mugler explained, to be sensitive to this is to learn a foreign language oneself. In other words when we learn ourselves how difficult it is to translate into a foreign language, then this makes it easier to appreciate this difficulty. This is, for our school, a very powerful and compelling argument to have second language instruction. 

I couldn't resist this great advertisement for language instruction.

Our instruction plays itself out in the following way twice a week (to illustrate how one can use the science of language instruction to inform curriculum and pedagogy). Our children learn Fijian (if they are non-Fijian speakers) or Rotuman (if they are Fijian speakers). This means that the children are forced to cope with a language they are unfamiliar with. They learn the language without text books and without doing much writing or grammar. The focus is instead on conversation and singing. The context of these conversations is mainly around food: both it’s preparation, consumption and rituals around food, mainly because this is something that is universal. Also we have found that as a social context it is surprising how much everyday vocabulary is required in order to have a conversation in the context of food. Phrases used are things like: our new students name is Ulrike and she comes from Denmark; please pass me two spoons!; what does it taste like?; please sit to the left of Ropate; Luisa would you ask Mr. Kumar if we can borrow the large bowel; does this taste too salty?; please bring along two bananas next week; and so on. These are certainly phrases and words children are more likely to use than “My wife and I would like to get directions to the nearest light metro transport network to Marseilles”

Our approach is something similar to a language instruction approach called ‘dogme’ which emphasises a more natural approach to learning a second language that is closer to the way that we probably learned our own first language (i.e. without text books, or a set syllabus). This approach will not make fluent speakers out of our children. I would argue that unless a significant proportion of the school day is spent speaking the second language, no school actually achieves this. Instead our children are forced to cope with the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language. They struggle to express vocabulary, comprehension and even humour & irony. This in turn will make them more open  and forgiving to the difficulties in translation that their future work colleagues or acquaintances will experience. 

Despite the differences that we have with more traditional second language instruction, our original parents who were so insistent on language instruction, seem to be happy and pleased that we’ve not only incorporated second language instruction into our curriculum, but also that we have strong (scientific) reasons for doing it the way that we are. 

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant