A Language Pill?

If you could take a magic pill and suddenly possess the ability to speak another language (whether it’s your second, third, or tenth) which language pill would you take? Maybe a language spoken widely in San Francisco, like Spanish or Cantonese? Perhaps an ancient language, like Latin or Sanskrit? What about a less commonly taught language like Wolof, Choctaw, or Yiddish?

While there is no wrong answer to this question, there is also, sadly, no magic pill for language acquisition. The good news is that many are beginning to think more creatively about the traditional foreign language requirement and how languages are taught. 

At present, we know that the middle school years are often a wasted opportunity for language learning. Unless students attend a truly bilingual school, they typically do not receive enough exposure or dynamic instruction in middle school to even place out of the entry level of a high school language program (Spanish I, for instance). This is unfortunate, because neuroscientists like Laurence Steinberg have shown that the plasticity of the adolescent brain rivals that of the brain during the first three years of life. While foreign language is ideally started earlier, middle school is the optimal time to develop social intelligence, and with it the ability to empathize and collaborate across cultures. Few skills are more important for the world that young people are entering, or for the world we hope they will create.

We also know from Daniel Pink’s book Drive that one of the secrets to high performance and satisfaction is autonomy—the deeply human need to direct our own lives. The autonomy to choose what language to learn and the methods of learning would likely increase each student’s motivation, which social psychologist R.C. Gardner has shown plays a larger role in language acquisition than does aptitude. In fact, autonomy in this area would amplify all three components of a language learner’s motivation Gardner has identified: her desire to learn, her attitude towards learning, and her motivational intensity.

Combining these factors, together with the recent advances in language-learning technology and distance communication tools (Skype, for instance), we’re exploring a wholly different approach to foreign language learning for Millennium School. Tentatively called the PILL (Plan for Individualized Language Learning), the approach would take advantage of the available research on neuroplasticity, motivation, and language acquisition and offer students some autonomy around their study of foreign languages.

We envision that students would select a language of study with guidance from their advisor and through conversations with family members. Once a language is selected, each student would develop an individualized plan (their PILL) with SMART goals along the way.  In support of each student’s PILL, Millennium School would identify trusted fluent speakers of a language, gather language resources with a proven track record (like the Pimsleur Method or the Middlebury Interactive Languages curriculum), and match through technology our language learners with students around the globe.  We would also help each student to experience language as part of a larger cultural context.

We’ve received enthusiastic support for this approach from several language acquisition specialists around the country, AND we want to hear what you think. Please share your thoughts with us directly, or join us for our next Salon conversation, this Tuesday, July 14th. See our events page for full details.

We look forward to developing this idea further, and learning together how to build a language program that captures the potential of the middle school years.