Living and Learning the Language

This article was featured in the October 2009 edition of the Language Educator. It is by Janine Erickson, the President of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. She advocates for travel to a country where the target language is spoken to really live and learn it. Keep this in mind when considering our trip to Costa Rica in August 2010. Come join in the language and cultural learning experience!

“Learning a foreign language is by far the most culturally enriching prospect available in our education system. Traveling to a country that speaks that particular language opens our eyes to the world. Using the language in the country where it is spoken, being understood, and blending in with the people and culture of that country are all experiences that are truly priceless!

Few experiences in life rival the academic, career, intercultural, personal, and social benefits of studying abroad. Struc­tured foreign travel and study in another country can provide many extraordinary opportunities and prepare us for the demands of the 21st century in our increasingly multicultural world. The chance to fine tune indispensable skills through language immersion; to experience a country’s vibrant history, art, and culture; and to develop a fresh perspective of the modern world are some of the greatest benefits of a travel/study abroad experience.

In today’s competitive job market, foreign travel experience on a resume can speak volumes. Both outside and within the education field, employers value qualities such as willingness and readiness to adapt to new environments, an ability to look at a project or situation from different perspectives, an understanding of diverse cultures, and an ability to take risks. Distinctive personal characteristics such as independence, flexibility, and adaptability are developed and expanded through study abroad experiences.

Foreign travel experiences also have a positive impact on globalizing the teaching of world languages. To enhance the delivery of a complete world language study program, language teachers at all levels must have strong proficiency in the language and knowledge of the culture in addition to professional teaching skills. Given the importance in today’s standards-based curricula, brief foreign visits are a practical answer to the higher proficiency expectations placed on world language teachers today.

As one of its 10 federal legislative priorities, ACTFL endorses immersion and language study abroad as a key compo­nent of a well articulated and continuous sequence of language study. In a position statement regarding Study Abroad and International and Community Experience (May 2007), ACTFL asserts that going beyond our borders is critical for all Americans but essential for teachers of languages. The statement further adds that an immersion experience that focuses primarily on measurable linguistic and cultural gains should be a requirement of language teacher preparation programs. Furthermore, ACTFL encourages language programs at all levels to secure financial support and seek international interac­tion between students and teachers abroad, participate in exchange programs, and design service learning opportunities for students to connect with other cultures in their own communities.

Understanding the relationship between language, culture, and society in the teaching process is indispensable. Living the language through a study abroad program develops increased self-confidence in using the target language, helps us better understand our own cultural values and beliefs, influences interactions with people from different cultures, and reinforces our work as world language educators as it opens the doors to new ideas and philosophies.

Although you have just begun your school year, it is not too soon to include a study abroad experience as part of your professional development plan for next summer! Read what your colleagues have to say about their own experiences abroad and its impact on their approach to language teaching in the “So You Say” section in this issue of The Language Educator on page 56.

There is so much we can learn from the world around us. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunities for extended study in a country where the language you teach is spoken natively. It will change your life and add to your teaching experience by shaping your own cultural identity and your view of the world. You will no doubt find yourself a more effective intercultural leader in our increasingly interconnected society.” -Janine Erickson, the Language Educator, October 2009, page 7.

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