Raw Transcript: Elizabeth Bernhardt on the Future of Language Learning

by  Elizabeth Bernhardt

I want to talk about the future not of language teaching, but of language learning.

This is the raw transcript of a workshop led by Elizabeth Bernhardt on April 25 2017.

Alexander Key: It is a tremendous pleasure to welcome Professor Elizabeth Bernhardt for this session of the Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew focal group. Professor Bernhardt needs no introduction. Still, I will say that she is the John Roberts Hale Director of the Language Center and Professor of German Studies at Stanford University. Professor Bernhardt has a long and storied career. In 2014, the Modern Language Association recognized her leadership in scholarship by granting her a Distinguished Service to the Profession award. For those of us who may not have been to the previous sessions, PATH, this focal group, is a new DLCL conversation in which interested parties, including me and you, get together and talk about Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Turkish, what we are doing with them, and how they fit in with the DLCL more broadly. When we were deciding whom to invite, Elizabeth was the first name on the list for obvious reasons, many of which will become more clear today.

Elizabeth Bernhardt: Thank you. Wow, it's amazing what you hear in these introductions, what you learn about. Thank you very much for inviting me. I feel a little bit embarrassed, because I am not a specialist in any of the PATH, what I am now calling PATH languages, which sounds kind of weird but that’s what I am calling them in my head. I have an appreciation for them, surely as much as I can. When Alexander first invited me he said how about talking about the future of language teaching and I thought about it and said, "No, I want to talk about the future of language learning." I think the teaching part we kind of have under control, it’s the learning part that’s causing me quite a bit of anxiety at the moment. I do hope that I can feed you all with anxiety so you can go out and think about this. So what I am going to try to do is unpack some of that anxiety that I have, both in terms of what the curriculum does to students, and what it does for students. I have divided my comments into three parts. The first one is "What does language learning mean for students?", and I am going to try to bring some research evidence which is mostly surveys and self-report. Then I want to underline how their interests are by and large compatible with what we know about language learning. That will bring me to the second focus of my talk and that’s where I will say something about what we actually want for students in terms of language learning. So I assume we all want them to use language for their future learning. It’s not good enough to just "do something with the language," it has to be linked to the future. And then I will move to part three, which is my concerns and anxieties, so stay tuned for that.

So Part 1—Students: what do they want? There is a survey by Richard Light from Harvard University called "Making the Most of College." In that survey, students specifically recorded how much they liked their language classes. They rated their math or physics classes negatively. But they were very positive about language classes. They reported that, first and foremost, they love their language classes because the objectives were clear. They told the interviewers that they like objectives, they like teachers who teach to objectives, and that foreign language teachers are very good about making the objectives clear and then working with students to explicitely help them meet that objective. Students were very clear, they don't like the "guess-what-I-am-thinking" kind of instruction, they like to know what they are doing and where they are going, and they like to have a person guiding them. And you see that, here at Stanford, at the Language Center, there is an almost obsessive preoccupation with the nature of the objectives that we have, and how they have been codified, and how to work with people to be able to meet those  objectives.You all know I am talking about here. In North America we use the language of proficiency, in Europe it is the Common European Framework. We are not out of the global sequence here, we are in it, and everyone in the developed world is kind of on the same scale about language learning and students in those programs are also on the same scale, they want to know where they are on the learning spectrum.

Second thing that the students tell us is that they want to know about the culture. Some surveys are on French, some on Spanish, but generally students report that they are in language classes because they want to "better understand how various groups interact and operate on the world" Literature learning? The answer is: yes. But literature learning is seen as revealing something about people. So, in other words, if I read this book in French, I am going to know more about french-speaking people and they like that. So, the undergraduate mentality is a pretty straightforward utilitarian perspective on why they are there and what they want about the culture stuff. They see language learning as personal and real and immediate in their world. Something to act on and do.

Now let me show you some national data. Here's a survey that reflects much of what I just said form those other surveys. This survey was conducted among around 500 learners of Arabic, and it comes out of the National Middle-East Language Resource Center. These data are about 10 years old but they were culled after 9/11, asking why students study Arabic. If you look at the graph, the big winners are: to understand arab culture, to read modern arabic press, to understand radio and tv, to travel to the Arab world, and to interact with people who speak arabic.

You see, these 500 kids are absolutely oriented towards cultural stuff. Let me show you what we have from the Stanford data. I should stop here [00:10:23] . Let me show you the next one which is our internal data. These data come from teaching evaluation forms. What I did was that I collapsed five years of PATH and I smushed everything together. And you see there, first year second year it’s kind of the same, you have this GER stuff. PATH languages are not requirement languages and nobody would be crazy enough to do that because of their difficulty level. And they are not big in majors either. But 2/3rd of the students who want to be there, they are there for an interest level, these are generally students who have already completed another language, and then they move to one of the PATH languages.

I see these data as basically consistent with the other survey. Students have told us over the years, I have been seeing, this graph would be the same if we put African languages here. Students in these kind of languages are always interested in more than just needing to be there. This is the Stanford situation, I get to rather than I have to. What this tells us is that they like to talk. This is something that I have been surveying, I asked students so what's the scoop on reading, how do you feel about that. Here's the general answer, they do not mind reading if they get to talk about what they are reading. This is also true for graduate students when I asked them. They do not like reading stuff that they are not going to get to talk about. In fact they say that the minute the instructor signals that they do not get to talk about what they have been asked to read, they don't read it. They say, why bother. So they report, they might not like being asked to read something and have someone else come in, teacher professor, who will hold the floor talking about whatever they have been asked to read. In fact I was told yesterday absolutely no reason to read any of this stuff when that guy is going to keep talking. I will do my own thing, I will write my paper and that’s the stuff I will read. End of story. Thats pretty important as I transition into the next part.