Association of Departments of Foreign Languages


The MLA's Articulation Initiative:
High School to College in Foreign Language Programs

Dorothy James, Hunter College, City University of New York

I have never cared for the word. I once wrote in a paper, in plain English: "We need to ensure that four years of one language in high school are followed by four years of the same language in college." A well-meaning editor, with a taste for abstraction, corrected this sentence to "We need to ensure vertical articulation from high school to college." No, I said, I know what I mean, but I do not know what you mean when you say "to ensure articulation."

The Albuquerque conference gives us a great chance to discuss what we mean by the word articulation, and I will try to summarize here what it means to me. "Ensuring vertical articulation" means to me providing a carefully connected course of studies during which students who begin with zero knowledge of a foreign language can progress through clearly defined stages to a sophisticated mastery of that language, necessary for the study of literature or of any other humanistic discipline and equally necessary for the conducting of business and any commercial or professional enterprise. It also means that students who have already learned some of the language somewhere can be placed into the course of studies at a point appropriate to their stage of development, and that students who have various degrees of command of the language as heritage speakers can connect with the course of studies at specific points. It means that students who leave the course of studies in the middle somewhere, without progressing to the highest point, nevertheless have a clearly defined ability at some level in the continuum of language.

There are many obstacles in the way of achieving such a continuum of language learning in a country where there is no national curriculum, where individual states operate in individual ways, where there is no real consensus even as to when children should begin to learn a foreign language, how much time they should devote to it, how many languages they should learn, let alone what levels of proficiency they should reach at certain points along the educational path.

The biggest obstacle of all has been a general refusal to recognize that learning a second language is a difficult, complicated business and that it takes a long time. Sterling work toward gaining such recognition is being done by the recently published national Standards, which outline, one might even say dramatize, the progress that can be made if students work with one language across a variety of content areas over a period of many years. No American students will spend all the years needed to progress through the levels described in the Standards in any one level of the educational system: not the elementary level, or the secondary, or the postsecondary, undergraduate or graduate. We must work out continuous courses of study that cross institutional boundaries, and we can only do this by talking to one another and listening to one another across these boundaries. We need to change our perceptions of who does what where. If students are to pursue even six- or eight-year courses of study in a language, community colleges, for example, will need to be encouraged to develop upper-level curricula rather than discouraged or even prohibited from this, as they are now. And many other changes of perception across the boundaries will need to take place.

In my own small institutional setting, we have worked for more than a decade at "articulating" our own four-year curriculum by drawing on the ACTFL scale to establish realistic standards for skill levels at various stages of our particular curriculum, giving our students a smooth passage from German 101 through to the end of the language and literature major. In the last three years, we have tried to continue this "articulation" across institutional boundaries into our graduate school. Very little German is taught in New York City high schools. The teaching-learning continuum for languages that are not taught in high school has to begin at a later stage, but the student has to go through similar stages of development.

Serious "articulation" means defining a particular course of study. Assessment, placement, standards, all these can be discussed in general terms, but ultimately they make real sense only in the service of specific and particular curricula, and particular curricula, given the hugeness and diversity of the United States educational system, can probably best be worked out in local collaboratives that translate the abstraction "articulation" into concrete courses of study.

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