ACTFL World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages as Practiced at Concordia Language Villages

Those of you who are (or aspire to become) language teachers in the United States are probably aware that in 1996 the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) published the report of its National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project which outlined eleven standards within five goal areas (the so-called 5 Cs): communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. Members of that task force were very clear in stating that those national standards did not describe the status quo of foreign language education in the United States at the time, but were rather put forward as a gauge with which to measure future progress – a kind of yardstick that would reflect the best institutional practices within foreign language education.  Further editions of the report were published in 1999, 2006, and 2011. The 2011 report, A Decade of Foreign Language Standards: Impact, Influence, and Future Directions, introduced the term World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages to replace the previous terminology.

This gauge is used here to highlight some ways in which the practices of Concordia Language Villages (CLV) help language learners accomplish their goals. 

Communication

The first three standards focus on the learner’s effective communication in more than one language in order to allow him or her to function in a variety of situations and for multiple purposes.

Interpersonal Communication

Because the Concordia Language Villages are set up as actual Villages, with learners interacting with each other and with staff in a variety of ways over the days they spend there, it comes as no surprise that learners gain a great deal of practice related to this standard. They engage in conversations with a wide range of partners over the course of each day – while cleaning their cabins, eating breakfast in the dining hall and making plans for the afternoon activities. They provide and obtain information at the bank, express feelings and emotions after seeing a foreign film and exchange opinions regarding to the best song to dance to.

Interpretive Communication  

This standard focuses primarily on one-way listening and reading comprehension. In the Villages, learners have a number of opportunities to practice their listening comprehension: they listen to goodnight stories in their cabins, short cultural presentations by staff or other villagers, announcements in the dining hall, and game rule descriptions at the beginning of evening programs. Reading comprehension is incorporated to a slightly lesser extent into village programming. Notable exceptions include the reading of comic books, newspapers, magazines, and short stories – either within instruction periods or during free time in the café or library – as well as the many foreign language posters, signs and other authentic texts such as train schedules and menus located around each Village.  (In addition to the basic two-week summer program, CLV offers an intensive four-week program that allows high school students to accomplish the equivalent of a typical one-year high school course. The high school credit program accounts for a minimum of 180 hours of instruction and typically includes a heavier focus on reading comprehension than does the two-week program.)

Presentational Communication  

This standard focuses on the formal presentation of information, concepts and ideas in spoken and written form and highlights one-way speaking and writing for the most part. In the Language Villages, learners have opportunities to work in small groups on meal presentations or news and weather programs. Some also keep daily journals, write short pieces for the village newspaper, or create travel brochures or reports on lake water quality for class projects. The intensive four-week credit program offers its participants increased numbers and types of presentational opportunities to build on and extend their second-language speaking and writing.

Cultures

The next two standards focus on the learner’s interaction with cultural competence and understanding.

Relating Cultural Practices to Perspectives 

Again, because Concordia Language Villages programming operates within actual Villages in which learners experience daily life in the foreign language, it should not be surprising that this standard is greatly emphasized within Village programming. Learners encounter cultural practices at every turn during each day – from the way eating utensils are used in the dining hall to the way friends are greeted along the paths to the way audiences express their appreciation following a concert or a play. The fact that large percentages of staff members are either native speakers who live these cultural practices daily or are non-native speakers who have lived for an extended time in the target culture helps to intensify the authenticity of these practices for the learners. Learners learn what to do when and where within the target culture.

Relating Cultural Products to Perspectives

This standard focuses both on the tangible (painting, literature, chopsticks) and the intangible (dance, system of education) products of the target culture. Over the years, individual villages have acquired more and more of the tangible products that help to construct the sensory authenticity of the villages: the sights of authentic mailboxes and street signs, the sounds of authentic musical instruments, the tastes and smells of authentic spices, the touch of authentic fabrics. The intangible products enter into learners’ consciousness through sports, art and dance activities, as well as through extended simulations focused on educational or political systems.

Connections

The following two standards focus on the learner’s connection with other disciplines and the acquisition of information and diverse perspectives in order to facilitate effective use of the target language within academic and career-related situations.

Making Connections

This standard highlights the importance of learning across disciplines, of connecting information, approaches, and perspectives learned in one area with those in others. Underpinning this standard is the important distinction between learning a language for its own sake and using that language in an endeavor to learn about other content areas. The approach used in the Villages is multifaceted; several times each day, learners meet in small groups to focus on the language itself. The rest of the day, however, is filled with opportunities to use the target language in order to learn other things – geography, history, martial arts, dancing, baking, canoeing, pottery. 

Acquiring Information and Diverse Perspectives

This standard focuses on language learning as providing a new window on the world. A great deal of programming within the Language Villages is directed specifically toward the attainment of this standard.  Through discussions with target language-speaking staff and villagers who come from across the country and around the world, participants have numerous opportunities to learn about viewpoints not usually represented within their own home and school communities. 

These perspectives often relate to current political events or global environmental issues, but may just as well have to do with more local issues such popular music and literature, or even how much and what kind of homework is most beneficial for students. Villagers exchange views regularly through everyday conversations, learning group discussions, structured ‘cabin council’ sessions, and in more formal debriefing phases following political, social and environmental simulations. The point of this standard is to emphasize that learners of a foreign language can use the language to gain access to engaging, alternative viewpoints that they might otherwise not have been exposed to.

Comparisons

The next two standards focus on the learner’s development of insight into the nature of language and culture in order to interact with cultural competence. 

Language Comparisons

This standard focuses on the impact that learning a new language has on students’ own abilities to examine and understand their first language. They develop hypotheses about the structure and use of languages that assist further language acquisition later in life. Because the vast majority of learners at Concordia Language Villages speak English as their first language, these kinds of discussions take place naturally at many places and times throughout the Village. 

Upon learning that German nouns can be one of three genders, an English-only speaker may be surprised that there are feminine or masculine nouns at all. But a learner who already knows French may only be surprised that it is possible for nouns to be of neuter gender, in addition to the possibility of being feminine or masculine. The fact that many participants are learning their second or third foreign language in the Language Villages encourages them to compare and contrast the language of their Village with other languages that they are learning as well.

Cultural Comparisons

Here, too, it is absolutely natural within the Language Village environment for learners to be confronted with an unexpected cultural product or practice and to wonder for a moment about what it is that they are experiencing. This element of surprise encourages the learners to reflect on what they have come to take for granted within their own lives. They begin to understand that what seems logical to them is merely logical because it is all they have known until now. Because learners come to the Villages from a wide variety of geographic, social and cultural backgrounds, these cultural comparisons and contrasts do not take place solely between U.S. American culture and cultures related to the language learned in the Village; comparisons are also made between the city or suburban life that many learners are used to and the life in the wooded environment of northern Minnesota.

Communities

The final two standards identify the importance of communicating and interacting with cultural competence to facilitate participation within multilingual communities at home and around the world.

School and Global Communities

This standard focuses on the role that knowledge of a foreign language can play in allowing a learner to participate within a community – either within the educational institution itself or outside it.  Because the Language Villages are actual villages, it happens quite naturally that the language of Village life is fundamental to the creation of a community feeling. The target language is quite literally the single common denominator among all the participants. The fact that learners and staff come together from around the globe with the primary purpose of encouraging language learning and use makes it easy to build a community around the learning itself. Many of the learners take their first supported steps in the language within the Village and then go on to use the language in future educational or professional opportunities – either within the United States or abroad.            

Lifelong Learning

This standard highlights the importance of getting off to a positive start when learning a foreign language. It is much easier to take what one has learned about a language, recognize the ways in which it provides access to new information and entertainment sources, and be motivated to put it into practice over a lifetime, if one has developed a love for the language and culture within a community of people who share that passion. And it is easier still when one is having fun with and in the language – through skits, games, chants, and songs! 

It is this type of community that the Language Villages aspire to offer – not only to young learners of the language but to their teachers as well. The fact that the majority of staff and Villagers return again and again for this kind of language learning experience indicates the beginning of a commitment on the part of many participants to become life-long learners of other languages. Family and adult sessions, along with professional training seminars, are offered to provide ongoing opportunities for engagement with Concordia Language Villages beyond summer youth programs.

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Revised from Chapter 1 of Doing Foreign Language in August 2015 by Heidi E. Hamilton