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An Interview with ACTFL’s Marty Abbott

Published: June 4, 2014

Marty Abbott

Martha (Marty) G. Abbott is the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, an organization comprised of 12,000 language teachers from elementary through higher education.  A frequent spokesperson for the importance and value of developing language proficiency, Marty took some time to answer questions for our e-newsletter and to share her insights on developments in language education, 21st century skills, and why everyone can learn a language.

If we want to encourage our children to be proficient in more than one language, what can we do to help along the way? What roles can parents play in language education for their children at different ages?

I think the most important role that parents can play at any age is that of “encourager.”  Having a positive attitude about learning languages and about people who speak different languages sends a powerful message to children.  In particular, young children like to do what their parents like to do, so exhibiting an openness and acceptance of people from other cultures is a great start.  As children get older, continuing with the positive attitude is important but also strategizing with them if they are running into challenges as they seek to develop their level of proficiency.  Finding ways to support their learning with family activities that highlight the target culture can help to promote children’s continued interest in the language.  And, finally, it’s important not to reminisce about less than positive experiences learning a language since that can end up deflating their interest.

What events or people inspired you to pursue a career in languages?  What catalysts promoted or sustained this interest throughout your education and early career?

I always enjoyed my language classes even though they were not necessarily focused on developing communicative competence back in those days.  I ended up majoring in Spanish with a minor in Latin and then spending my junior year in college studying in Madrid.  As for many people, this was an absolute turning point in my language study and my life.  I increased my language proficiency and my understanding of the target culture as well as learning to survive while traveling around Europe during my vacations.  In today’s world this would be the equivalent of becoming a “global citizen” and I think it is still a very powerful “game changer” for many people.  After graduation I went into teaching and it was an extremely rewarding career for me as it is for most people.

What are the most important developments in language education in the last 20 years?

Language education has metamorphosed from being strictly an academic pursuit focused on grammatical knowledge and learning “about” the language to a necessary life skill that emphasizes developing communicative competence.  This movement began in the 1980s with the development of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines that created a new way of looking at classroom outcomes in terms of actual use of language in the real world.  The movement was slow to catch on but is now taking on an entirely new importance as we have such a critical need to be able to interact with the rest of the world on a daily basis.  A subject area in schools that has always been on the periphery of the core subjects is now slowly moving toward a subject of primary importance.

We hear a lot about 21st century skills.  What are they and how do they relate to the field of language education?

21st Century Skills as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are those qualities and abilities that have been defined by employers as necessary for the work force they intend to hire in the 21st Century.  Educators have taken these and identified how they can be developed within the K-12 learning environment.  ACTFL has taken them and built a skills map outlining how these skills play out in a language classroom.  The map can be found on the ACTFL web site and, as language teachers who are familiar with the map have said, these are skills that have always been evident in a high quality language class.

What existing or new professions will require greater language proficiency in the next twenty years or so?  Any bold predictions?

I love this question.  It reminds me of when I was teaching in the 70s and we had a poster in the classroom that said “Learn a Language and Be Prepared for These Careers.”  There was a short list with jobs like Flight Attendant, Diplomat, Translator, Interpreter, etc.  Nowadays, there is NO career where having another language (or two) won’t be important.  Already we are hearing from employers that they are paying attention to languages on the resume and when given two equal resumes but one person has listed language expertise—that is the person who will be hired.  And I am not just talking about companies and organizations that do business internationally.  We have, and will continue to have, critical needs for a multilingual work force here in the U.S.  Because of our changing demographics, we have increased needs to service a large number of immigrants in a wide variety of ways.

All language teachers encounter adults and youth who say “You teach French/Russian/Chinese? I’m really bad at languages.  I could never learn _____________"  What’s your response to this assertion?

We have developed a terrible national psyche that we are not good at languages.  I believe it stems from our history of teaching a lot about the language and not focusing on developing the ability to communicate.  Research shows that just because you know all the irregular verb forms or where the accent marks go, doesn’t mean you can put together a coherent sentence.  So when people used to spend four years “studying” a language and then could not communicate in it, they came to believe it was because they were lacking the “language gene.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Everyone has the potential to learn another language!  With our emphasis now on communication in the language classroom, we can hopefully put that myth out of circulation.  My dream is to see a new generation of language learners who are confident users of the language as they interact with others who speak that language both here in the U.S. and abroad!

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