Friday, June 29, 2012

November 2011 in Denver

I would like to report my continued participation in the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Convention, which, held on November 18-20 at the Colorado Convention Center, Denver, Colorado, hosted more than 6,500 language teachers and administrators and offered more than 600 program sessions and workshops, as well as over 225 exhibits. It was very nice to meet and talk with Ms. Edith Beard Brady, World Languages Specialist of Heinle/Cengage Learning (note that Cengage Learning has been a continued supporter of FLANC).

In addition to the excitement surrounding the ACTFL Convention (which I will later describe in detail), my trip to Denver turned out to be a memorable journey because it gave me a chance to reminisce my cross-country travel in my youthful days. More than thirty years ago when I was a 21-year-old college senior, a friend of mine and I travelled across the United States by Greyhound bus. We started our journey from Los Angeles early August, and we visited many places including Washington DC, New York City, and Niagara Falls. We then visited Toronto, travelled back to the West Coast through Canada by train, and finally arrived in San Francisco in early September.

Earlier in that trip, we travelled from Salt Lake City to Denver. When we arrived in Denver, my backpack, which should have been stored underneath in the baggage compartment, was missing. I was stunned when I was told at the Denver Greyhound bus terminal (which was not very clean, typical of downtown bus terminals in those days) that my backpack must have gone to Omaha, Nebraska, and it would take at least a couple of days for me to get it back! While waiting for my backpack to be sent back to Denver, I spent my time visiting nearby places including Red Rocks Amphitheatre. I saw large, tilted, disc-shaped rocks there, but at that time, I, a naïve young man, was so concerned about my backpack (which had virtually everything) that I could hardly enjoy the natural wonder! This unfortunate incident gave me some trepidation about visiting the Mile High City. More than three decades had passed since then, and this was the very first time for me to visit the Mile High City! This time, once again, I went to Red Rocks, which made me feel reminiscent or even nostalgic, and this time I really enjoyed it. I also visited the Denver Greyhound bus terminal, but its surrounding area seemed to have completely changed into a clean, urban neighborhood!

Let’s move back to the ACTFL convention. The invited speaker of the opening session was Dr. Milton Chen, Senior Fellow and Executive Director Emeritus at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Dr. Chen’s speech was entitled “Empowering Language Educators Through Collaboration.” According to him, 32% of K-12 students are learning foreign languages, although ACTFL’s most recent enrollment survey reports that only 18.5% of all K-12 “public” students were enrolled in foreign language courses from 2004-2008 (see Volume 5 of Connections, p. 49). Furthermore, only 8% of college students are learning foreign languages. You may be surprised at these low percentages and may doubt the accuracy of these low figures. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA), however, as of the fall of 2009, of the students in approximately 2,500 colleges and universities, almost 1.7 million students were enrolled in non-English language courses — almost identical to the figure reported in Dr. Chen’s speech.

However, do not lose hope. In the mid 1960s, nearly double the aforementioned share of college students (16.5%) studied foreign languages. But in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, universities began dropping foreign language studies as a degree requirement. This decision led the percentage of students enrolled in foreign languages to drop to a low of 7.3% by 1980. From a long-term point of view from the 1960s to the 1980s, therefore, a declining trend continued. Luckily, studying foreign languages is now rebounding. More American students are studying foreign languages, particularly non-European languages such as Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese.

One of the highlights of the convention was Mr. Yo Azama of North Salinas High School (Salinas, CA), a Japanese language teacher, being named the 2012 National Language Teacher of the Year. Because the Teacher of the Year is chosen from a field of five regional winners from around the United States, the award is arguably the most prestigious one in the field of foreign language
education in the country. “The world needs a deeper understanding of each other. One student, one colleague, one friend at a time, we are changing the world,” Mr. Azama told the teachers gathered at the Colorado Convention Center during the opening session. He also thanked his students for inspiring him every day and said that he would keep his promise “to make them sushi next week.” The National Language Teacher of the Year award is sponsored by ACTFL and publisher Holt McDougal. As a spokesperson for language education over the coming year, Mr. Azama will deliver presentations at foreign language conferences, meet with policymakers, and appear at events to promote language education. He will thus spend the next year as an ACTFL ambassador, promoting the significance of
foreign language education, and getting involved in many other advocacy
activities on behalf of foreign languages, not just the Japanese language alone.

Mr. Azama
is the very first teacher of Japanese language to win this award, which was a memorable event indeed. I am proud of him not only as his countryman but also as a language instructor who teaches the same tongue. Again, I felt that it might be a good idea to ask Mr. Azama to write something for Connections or even to invite him to give a speech on foreign language teaching. This is why I wrote earlier that my journey to Denver turned out to be a memorable journey in more ways than one.

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