AHSS Language Education: Foreign Language Research Discussion

Arts, Humanities and Social Studies Group
Research Focus Areas  

     These are the initial draft explorations of specific research focus areas in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Studies branch of the Ph.D. in Urban Education proposal. The various areas should be read as part of a larger interdisciplinary context that refers back to the overview statement for the AHSS Group.  

Foreign Language Education Research  

     Research traditions in foreign language education draw from a significant number of related fields, including theoretical and applied linguistics, communications, psychology, sociology, educational technology, and literature.  Broadly conceived, one can categorize the traditions within the field into three areas: language acquisition/learning, instructional improvement, and development of the profession.  A fourth, emergent area could be referred to as the sociology of language education.
     Language acquisition is generally thought to differ from language learning, the first being a process that is more or less natural, the second is better described as a planned, educational activity.  Drawing parallels between the way first languages (mother tongue) and subsequent ones (second languages) are acquired and learned has a strong history in the field.  Finding ways to apply the principles from acquisition in the learning environment is likewise a common theme of research.
     "Instructional improvement" is the area currently of considerable importance.  Beginning with the introduction of performance-standards in the document Standards for foreign language learning: Preparing for the 21st century (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1996), many scholars are seeking ways to connect these mandates to instructional practice and reform.  Notably, computer assisted language instruction and immersion experiences have received recent attention.  Typically, research of this sort focuses in on one our more of the traditional "skills" in language education:  grammar, reading, writing, listening, speaking, or culture.  Additionally, much attention has been paid recently to the development of evaluation instruments and techniques, particularly in terms of oral proficiency.
     "Development of the profession" research focuses on ways to encourage an expansion of the application and contexts in which language education occurs.  Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES), articulation among levels (within a single school and from secondary to tertiary, as examples), and languages for specific purposes (e.g., business, engineering) are current issues.
     In terms of current debates within the field, there are none that have garnered enough attention to galvanize proponents of both sides into debate.  Foreign language education in the United States suffers from both a perception of irrelevance and a commonly-accepted attribute as an educational failure.  The President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, for example, suggested that "the nation was in serious trouble in terms of the second language competence of its citizenry" (Omaggio, 1986, p. 10).  In Strength through Wisdom (1979), the commission concluded that "American's incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous" (p. 12).  Budget cuts tend to affect foreign language education programs disproportionately, therefore several professional organizations serve both to promote language education and act as transmitters of scholarship in the field.  Given that dual role, little controversy within the literature is generally found.
     A fourth, emergent area is of particular interest for institutions in multicultural settings such as the City University of New York.  I refer to it as the sociology of language education, but it too draws from sociolinguistics, curriculum theory, language policy and planning, and educational foundations to examine the role that context of language learning may play in learning/acquisition, instruction, and development of the profession.  The work of several scholars indicate the breadth of issues addressed in this area.
          Sociologists of language and language educators have commonly contrasted foreign language education with second language education (Corson, 1990).  Simone (1993) notes that "despite the trends in internationalism and multiculturalism, most foreign language instruction at both the school and college level has not changed significantly in the past half century" (p. 15).  Reagan and Case (1996) echo the belief of many when they state that there "can be little doubt that for the vast majority of students in the United States foreign language education has been a failure" and that our students "overwhelmingly remain monolingual" (p. 1).
     Current researchers within this area typically focus on issues of language, education, and power.  Researchers in language policy and critical theory have long recognized the nexus between language, education, and power.  Over a broad range of topics, with both national and international focus and implications, these scholars have attempted to paint the exceedingly complex portrait of connections between language, education, power, and control.
       Peirce (1995) effectively contends that second language acquisition theorists have failed to consider important social aspects in the language learning context.  Power and Inequality in Language Education  (Tollefson, 1995) is concerned with United States ESL and bilingual programs, including Auerbach's (1995) discussion of the power of pedagogical decisions in the ESL classroom within the areas of curriculum development, instructional content, materials, and language choice.  This excellent volume does not deal with foreign language education directly, however.  Recently three scholars, Brosh (1997) and Osborn and Reagan (1998; see also Reagan & Osborn, 1998) have specifically addressed issues of power within foreign language classrooms and texts.  

Examples of broad, appropriate research questions might include:
1) How can foreign language classrooms most effectively utilize native speakers within the community to increase instructional effectiveness?
2) How do attitudes regarding linguistic diversity make their way into the language classroom?
3) How is language learning influenced by societal context?  

Key journals:
Foreign Language Annals
The French Review
Learning Languages
TESOL Quarterly
Die Unterrichtspraxis  

*** items indicated with 3 asterisks are considered state-of-the-art  

Andrews, L. (1997). Language exploration and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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Benesch, S. (1993). ESL, ideology, and the politics of pragmatism. TESOLQuarterly, 27(4), 705-717.
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Brosh, H. (1993). The influence of language status on language acquisition: Arabic in the Israeli setting. Foreign Language Annals, 26(3), 347-358.
Brosh, H. (1997). The sociocultural message of language textbooks: Arabic in the Israeli setting. Foreign Language Annals, 30(3), 311-326.
Byram, M. (1989). Cultural studies in foreign language education. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
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***Carrasquillo, A. L. & Rodriguez, V. (1996).  Language minority students in the mainstream classroom. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
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