With the country’s sizable (but shrinking) monolingual population, required language courses are under constant pressure to prove their worth. Of course, thousands of graduates each year will use their language skills in fields such as healthcare, law, or public administration. But for students who will not continue beyond the required course sequence, university decision makers may ask, “What do they get out of it?” Given the deep post-recession budget cuts and high-profile language program closures of the past several years, educators must emphasize the full range of benefits of language instruction. Even if one strips away the obvious linguistic and cultural benefits of language learning, these courses remain essential for core curriculum. Language courses foster development of a specific and very desirable non-cognitive (soft) skill set in students. These skills will serve them throughout their college careers and into the workplace, even if they do not develop or retain the ability to hold a conversation in the target language.
Beauty in the (communication) breakdown
It is a stuffy July evening, and I am guest lecturing a language teacher education course at Rutgers University’s Camden campus. The instructors are simulating an activity to learn how to implement it in their own classes. They take notes while watching a YouTube clip of a woman speaking English with a thick Jamaican accent. She uses some words in Jamaican Patois, and her speech is not entirely intelligible to us. After watching, they must use their individual notes to collectively write or “reconstruct” the Jamaican woman’s monologue. There is much discussion and disagreement over what she actually said, and each group reconciles disparate ideas to arrive at their final reconstructions.
After I reveal the original script, we discuss why this type of highly collaborative activity is a best practice in contemporary foreign language education. The act of questioning different aspects of the language while working with peers to arrive at consensus has repeatedly been shown to facilitate language learning, with numerous studies indicating subsequent gains in individual students’ ability to (accurately) produce the linguistic structures that were discussed collaboratively. These benefits hold even when group members are of varying proficiency levels and learners assume novice and expert roles, respectively. There is a catch, though. The growing body of research on peer interaction in the language classroom has also shown that in order for these exchanges to be beneficial, groups must demonstrate a high degree of collaboration – what language researchers call “mutuality.” This means that group members must acknowledge and incorporate their peers’ contributions, even when they are not in full agreement.
Are language classes really special though? Amidst the current push for active (flipped) learning models, it seems that interactive classes are becoming commonplace across disciplines. While this is true, the interpersonal component of language courses is in fact quite unique. Since language educators know that episodes of noticing inconsistencies in peers’ language production promote linguistic development, they purposely design activities that compel learners to do just that. This is not to foster discord. Rather, students learn language structures on a continuum: in the initial stages their understanding and production is regulated by others (their instructor, peers, textbooks), but with time and assistance they are able to progress to a state of self-regulation. To facilitate this process, instructors take great care in modeling appropriate ways of giving peers corrective feedback, and they also check in frequently with each group. The relatively small size of language courses makes this possible.
Thus in addition to developing linguistic and cultural knowledge, language courses hone several key non-cognitive skills. During each class, students repeatedly compare their ideas with those of their peers and reconcile differences in order to successfully complete the day’s activities. These skills used in the classroom will enable students to later be effective colleagues in the boardroom. These are exactly the type of soft skills that employers have repeatedly found lacking in millennials entering the workforce. Additionally, recent research on non-cognitive skills has showed an advantage for higher-income students, further underscoring the university’s role in leveling the playing field by providing students from all backgrounds the ability to develop skills that will help them excel after graduation. Finally, students themselves see the value in the non-linguistic skills they gain in language courses. In a recent study in which language learners were given supplemental explicit training on ways to provide corrective feedback to peers, participants later reported using elements of the training outside of class, in other social encounters.
Though communicative and cultural competence are the most obvious benefits of language instruction, language courses are also uniquely suited to cultivate students’ ability to resolve conflict collaboratively in ways that large lecture hall courses simply cannot. Language courses’ distinct pedagogy provides a springboard for interaction. Smaller class sizes allow for frequent guidance from the instructor and instill a strong sense of classroom community, creating optimal conditions for developing non-cognitive skills. Indeed, my undergraduate students often tell me that their language course is their only class where they know all of their classmates by name. In this way language courses prepare students to be both global citizens and effective colleagues. This holds true even for learners that do not continue language study at higher levels. Institutions have the responsibility to their students to continue to include high quality foreign language education as a foundational component of their general education curriculum.