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Why do we still teach foreign languages as a separate subject? Posted by on Feb 5, 2018 in CL-150, Language Learning, Language News

Languages aren’t used in isolation, so why do we teach them in isolation?

In U.S. schools and training facilities, languages have long been taught as an individual subject—a set of words, grammar rules, and pronunciations to memorize and recall at the right moments.

Not by coincidence, the U.S. has also been notoriously ineffective at producing truly multilingual students. How many students take a few years of a language only to forget it all a few years later? How many professionals take an intensive 6-week immersion course, only to memorize enough to survive but never really thrive in a foreign working environment?

Of course, some direct language instruction is necessary, but a foreign language is not a subject, it’s a tool. As a recent Forbes post concludes, learners need “the chance to use language the way it was intended, as a tool for communication, not as a complex set of rules to master.”

What is a cross-curricular lesson?

One solution to our language education crisis is cross-curricular lessons, or lessons that use language as a medium for teaching other subjects.

As eSchool News notes, “beyond giving educators the chance to teach more than one discipline during a lesson, cross-curricular lessons also help students recognize the real-world application of their learned skills.” Rather than a French lesson focusing on the subjunctive, a cross-curricular lesson might require that learners discuss a current event or an ecological discovery in French, giving context to the language as a communicative tool.

K-12 and higher ed institutions are already using cross-curricular language lessons.

This isn’t an imagined concept—K-12 schools and universities around the U.S. are already doing it.

In small-town Maryland, Anne Arundel County Public Schools have married languages and STEM subjects, instructing their K-5 STEM classes in Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Parents were hesitant at first, but young students have embraced the opportunity: “Even a non-Mandarin speaker can see that children are learning at a high level in Mandy Tang’s first-grade class at West Side. After a lesson in subtraction, the children write and illustrate their own mathematics word problems, many choosing to do so in Chinese.”

The Trout Gallery at Dickinson College is tying language together with the arts, an effort that earned them the 2018 James W. Dodge Foreign Language Advocate Award. The award recognizes the gallery’s “innovative approach to language learning through a program that makes art the basis for conversation in students’ target languages.” According to the gallery director, classes use objects on display as the basis for a discussion in the target language. He applauded the program, suggesting “visual art is an effective way of developing skills for language learners.”

In the STEM world, the University of Rhode Island’s engineering department offers a 5-year dual degree in engineering and a foreign language, which includes a compulsory year of studying and interning abroad. For students enrolled in the rigorous five-year dual degree in International Engineering and International Business, a term abroad at the Université de Technologie de Compiègne in France offers the opportunity to “explore the culture and technology environment, and communicate with their budding language skills.”

Businesses and organizations also use cross-curricular, task-based language lessons for relevant job training.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has long trained agents in Spanish, but the course was typically grammar-based. In 2006, CBP did away with its traditional Spanish course and replaced it with “Task Based Language Teaching” (TBLT)—a curriculum focused on mastering specific, job-related tasks in Spanish.

The results were impressive: “Students in the task-based course were able to out-perform students in the previous grammar-based course in terms of oral accuracy, fluency, and complexity, while performing at an equivalent level in grammatical accuracy”. The agents-in-training also agreed that the course was “useful and relevant to their on-the-job Spanish needs”.

We integrate cross-curricular language lessons in our corporate training programs as well.

At Transparent Language, our language training programs are designed to help professionals for whom language success is not optional.

Our team of cohort coaches, for example, has been tasked with helping U.S. Government linguists, and translators sustain their language skills between periods of formal training. Using the CL-150, these coaches develop and distribute weekly lessons designed to push the students to their proficiency threshold.

As world events dictate, coaches create and assign what we call a “MINE” lesson, or a language lesson focusing on a Major International News Event, as reported on by local news outlets. These events—economic, environmental, political, scientific, or beyond—can relate to the target culture or to a major multicultural event. For example, within 24 hours of Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election, for example, MINE lessons were created and assigned to learners of 6 different languages. Using authentic, current materials gives learners the chance to experience “real” language use, while also educating them about the political or cultural climate of the region in which they operate.

Learning in a foreign language does not handicap comprehension.

Cross-curricular teaching would mark a revolutionary shift in education, so it’s natural to expect some resistance. It would require significant collaboration between subject experts and language teachers, as well as sufficient teacher training. But most things worth doing are hard, right?

There is one myth about cross-curricular language lessons that needs to be debunked, though. Educators, companies, or parents may fear that since students are learning in a non-native language, they may not fully understand the subject material. Can you actually learn math in Chinese if you’re still learning Chinese?

Yes, you can! According to research from the University of Vienna, learners “possess the same amount of content knowledge as their peers who were taught in the [native language].” In fact, some researchers argue that “linguistic problems, rather than leading to task abandonment, often prompt intensified mental construction activity […] and better understanding of curricular concepts can occur.” In other words, learners are rising to the challenge.

Why does contextual, communicative language learning matter?

Simply put, contextual, communicative learning yields better results.

The same research by the University of Vienna compiled numerous studies showing positive results of what they call “Content and Language Integrated Learning” (CLIL): “It is often observed that by way of CLIL students can reach significantly higher levels of [target language] than by conventional foreign language classes (Wesche 2002) and that positive effects on communicative competence are visible (e.g. Wode 1994, Klieme 2006)”.

Once again, Forbes hits the nail on the head: “By de-emphasizing the focus on language itself, we may actually improve our acquisition of it, because when we stop trying to teach people about what they are saying and just start expecting them to say it, we will see far better results.”

Providing language results is at the heart of the Transparent Language mission. Yes, we make language learning technology. But more importantly, we help our customers, including US Government personnel, customize and leverage that technology to create training programs to meet their proficiency needs and domain requirements. We enable a world of affordable, economical customization and swift deployment without compromising on quality or flexibility.

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About the Author:Transparent Language

Transparent Language is a leading provider of best-practice language learning software for consumers, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses. We want everyone to love learning language as much as we do, so we provide a large offering of free resources and social media communities to help you do just that!


  1. Manolo victorio:

    I want to inprove Mi English skill

  2. Faiza Matthews:

    Great article! What free Arabic language resources suited to K-6 students do you offer?

    • Transparent Language:

      @Faiza Matthews Hi Faiza! Unfortunately, most of our Arabic resources are geared toward adult learners. I can’t guarantee free resources like the Word of the Day or the Arabic Blog would be 100% appropriate for young students. If you’re interested in looking through and carefully selecting age and level-appropriate content, you can find links to our free resources on this page: https://www.transparent.com/learn-arabic/

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