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Foreign Language Instruction and Athletic Training

A news article in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 6 contains some useful reminders for teachers of foreign language ("English Gets the Last Word in Japan"). The report focused on Rakuten Inc., Japan's largest online retailer by sales. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has mandated that by 2012 the company's 6,000 employees will all speak and correspond with each other in English. To achieve this ambitious goal, weekly meetings, work documents, menus in the company cafeteria, and signs in elevators are in English.

What does Rakuten's strategy have to do with teaching a foreign language in this country? The best answer to this question is found on the athletic field. There's a principle called specificity of training that has direct application to foreign language acquisition. What it says is that the closer the training in the gym mimics the actual performance on the field, the greater the likelihood of transfer of the necessary skills.

In schools of education, the principle is called appropriate practice. Yet in foreign language classes, too often students are asked to spend a disproportionate amount of time on developing knowledge and skills not specific to the stipulated goals of the class. For example, if teachers want their students to be able to carry on a conversation in Spanish, it behooves them to provide their students with ample opportunities to do so, followed by immediate feedback.

Yet many teachers require their students instead to translate literature from Spanish into English. There's nothing at all wrong with this, but it will do little to help students learn to carry on a conversation. But great care also has to be taken in teaching conversation. Students studying Arabic, for example, are taught modern standard Arabic, which is the formal written language of the Koran. However, this form is rarely spoken in the streets, leaving students at a distinct disadvantage

Berlitz and other companies understand the indispensability of appropriate practice. Since the objective of most of their courses is conversational fluency, they give students constant practice in conversing - not in translating or reading. On the other hand, if the objective were to develop the ability to translate documents from one language into another, then instruction should be designed to do precisely that. Candidates for the PhD for years were routinely required to have a reading knowledge of French and German. As a result, it was not uncommon to find many such degree holders unable to speak either language fluently, even though they could perfectly translate a document. Once again, the lack of specificity of training or appropriate practice was responsible

I wrote about the importance of appropriate practice in an op-ed that was published in the Christian Science Monitor on April 17, 2008 ("Good teachers teach to the test"). Although I used the teaching of English composition as an example, the remarks I made hold true for the teaching of other subjects as well. The operative word is "appropriate." Practice that is not directly geared to the desired outcome is not totally in vain, but it will not maximize learning the indicated behavior.

I became fluent in Spanish as a result of the three years I spent in a public high school. The teacher insisted on Spanish only from the first day, even though she knew that her students would not understand everything. Her primary goal was conversational fluency, and her pedagogy was impeccable. I immediately began to internalize the sounds of Spanish, including the trilled "r", which typically separates native and English speakers. The three additional years of Spanish I had as an undergraduate were an instructional hodgepodge that taught me little.

So I take my hat off to Rakuten. The company is doing what it should to prepare its employees to learn English. Perhaps there's a lesson here for K-12 teachers who want their students to learn a foreign language.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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