Friday, December 6, 2019
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Baltimore Co. supt. talks technology, foreign language

Middle- and high-school students in Baltimore County could receive digital devices from their schools, and elementary-school students could study foreign languages within a few years, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance spoke Thursday, alluding to his vision for public schools in Baltimore County. Much of his tenure has involved school safety issues, as a student was shot at Perry Hall High School in the county on the first day of this school year, his first as superintendent.

But in his first State of the Schools speech, he talked about academic matters as well, specifically the digital divide—the difference in educational opportunity found between students who have regular access to electronic devices and those who don’t—as well as future job prospects for graduates.

“Earning a Baltimore County public schools diploma needs to have greater meaning,” the Sun quoted him as saying.

And since about 55 percent of the county’s students will be minorities, he said job prospects are better for bilingual students. “Twenty-seven percent of companies surveyed … say that they’re more likely to hire someone who is multilingual, and the reports are when those individuals are multilingual, they earn about 10 percent more,” WBAL-TV (NBC affiliate) quoted him as saying.

The benefit of elementary foreign language instruction

Introducing students to foreign language learning in elementary school may improve their ability to converse in those languages, English teachers in foreign countries have found. While students are in elementary school, they can take the time needed to immerse themselves in the foreign language and culture; students in high school tend to focus their learning on material required for tests or college admission, i.e., grammar and vocabulary.

“As a result of this global trend [starting foreign language (FL) instruction in elementary school], the learning of FLs is playing a major role in many educational systems. This is the context in which [Content and Language Integrated Learning] programs have been implemented during the last few years in many different contexts, in the belief that this will help to improve students’ language proficiency and to nurture a feel good and can do attitude towards language learning in general,” said David Lasagabaster and Juan Manuel Sierra of the University of the Basque Country in Spain in a recent study.

And research out of Japan, here, suggests that starting foreign-language instruction earlier helps students become more communicative in the foreign language, because requirements for high school graduation or collegiate foreign-language study are farther off than they are for high school students.

“Teachers should try to have pupils understand language and culture experientially, avoiding giving too detailed explanations or engaging pupils in rote learning,” their 2012 study concluded.

In other words, the goal of studying a foreign language has to include an understanding of how language ties in to cultures in countries where the language is spoken. Instead of “rote learning” grammar and vocabulary, students learn:

  • The sounds and rhythms of the foreign language
  • Its differences from their native language
  • The interesting aspects of language and its richness
  • The differences in ways of living, customs, and events
  • Various points of view and ways of thinking
  • Communication with people of different cultures
  • A deeper understanding of culture

Addressing the digital divide of the future

Dr Dance said he couldn’t be very specific about what types of digital devices would be offered to students, pointing out that electronic devices change very rapidly, and teachers have to first be ready to use students’ devices, he said. Eventually, though, he envisioned the digital devices replacing textbooks, not teachers.

“Imagine our students arriving to school with digital devices equipped with their schedules, their books, their assignments, and their calendars,” he said.

Students seemed to appreciate his understanding of their lives. “Times are changing and we have to change with it, and as the rest of the world changes, our education has to change a little bit. There are definitely new ways to teach and new ways to get information across,” WBAL quoted one student who attended the speech as saying.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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