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Four Lessons on World Language Instruction From the Netherlands

UPDATED: A wave of anti-globalism has been making its way around the world, and today, the world is looking toward the Netherlands to see if it will overtake this traditionally welcoming and inclusive society. But if you peer beyond the headlines, world language teachers in the Netherlands are just as dedicated to their mission of preparing students for a global world as ever, regardless of the anti-global political climate. Lynne West, Instructional Specialist and Latin teacher, from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San José, California, traveled to the Netherlands as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching program. Today she shares the lessons she learned about teaching world languages.

By guest blogger Lynne West

In spring 2016, I had the opportunity of a lifetime and spent 5 months in the Netherlands as a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching. The veteran foreign language teacher in me was particularly interested in exploring the Dutch reputation for being excellent with languages. That reputation, paired with the European Union's focus on increasing bilingualism and multilingualism, inspired my project. (UPDATE: Despite increasing anti-global, pro-nationalist rhetoric and sentiment around Europe and the rest of the world, the EU's commitment to multilingualism has not changed as of this writing and is not the focus of my research.) My time in the Netherlands afforded me the space to research best practices in language instruction and observe the implementation of those practices in the classroom.

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In the Netherlands, there are about 130 schools that offer a bilingual curriculum called Tweetalig Onderwijs (TTO, which means "bilingual education"). These schools require that 50 percent of the overall curriculum be taught in English. Additionally, students have the opportunity to learn a third and sometimes fourth language at the start of secondary school.  During my time observing these schools, I was struck by the energy, creativity, and care of the school community; and impressed by the students' language abilities. Four takeaways have emerged from this experience that have notable implications for all language teachers and can be leveraged in any language class.

1.  Content must be engaging.
In TTO schools in the Netherlands, students acquire and strengthen their second-language skills as they also learn curricular content. For example, their science classes and social science classes are taught in English and have both content-area and linguistic objectives. The combination of content-area and linguistic learning objects means that because students are interested in the content, they are engaged in learning both the subject matter and the language. While some of our language textbooks have identified themes and topics to drive student learning in engaging ways, there is room for teachers to delve deeper into appealing content for students to explore. Honing in on interesting and relevant content will provide students with meaningful reasons to use the language.

2.  Approach matters.
We must consider not only what we are teaching, but also how we are teaching it. At the TTO schools, I saw classes that were rich in communicative and authentic activities. Students were not spending time on long mechanical drills; nor was every linguistic mistake pointed out and analyzed. Rather, students were actively and spontaneously using the language to communicate with each other and their teachers. There was nothing rehearsed about their language use. There were times when they visibly struggled to find the right words and asked for support. We can strengthen our classes by providing students with these vitally important opportunities to not only use the linguistic features they know, but also to become aware of their need to acquire new ones.

3. Use rich and authentic target language.
Teacher use of the target language is paramount to the development of students' language skills. In TTO schools, teachers use the target language to a very high degree or exclusively. They rarely, if ever, use the non-target language. And the more students hear the language, the more apt they are to actually use it. I saw beginning-level students at TTO schools work hard to use the target language in class when addressing their teacher and their peers. If the goal of our programs is to produce confident users of the language, then we must find as many ways as possible to expose students to rich target language use.  

4. Focus the classroom culture on growth.
In both the language and content-area classes I visited at TTO schools, I noticed that the teachers carefully created a learning environment that was comfortable and safe for students to experiment with language. Teachers focus on comprehensibility during oral activities, and students are not corrected each time they make a mistake. When teachers do offer corrections, they do so by re-casting student responses. Consequently, students feel successful in their use of the language. Their feeling of success fosters not only confidence but also a willingness to push the boundaries of their language use just a little bit further. We can nurture our students' desire to stretch their linguistic skills by being attentive to the type of learning environment we create and support.

IMG_2172.jpegRegardless of the language being taught or the type of school, I believe that we can create more meaningful, engaging, and supportive language programs and classes by regularly asking ourselves how we are doing in these four areas. Critically reflecting on our own practice and finding moments to share these reflections with our colleagues will result in energizing collaboration. As we continue to engage in professional reflection and collaboration, we will infuse our classes with the kind of globally relevant learning that our students need.

Read more about Lynne's research in the Dutch language teaching journal, Levende Talen Tijdschrift.

Connect with Lynne, the Center for Global Education, and Heather on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of the author. Caption: Lynne West standing in front of the academic building of the University of Groningen, her host institution in the Netherlands. 

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