The Future of Foreign Language Instruction


Judith A. Walker


The future of K-12 language instruction is being shaped by three forces:

  1. The new national standards for foreign language learning.
  2. The critical need to participate in global events.
  3. An emphasis on communication in course outcomes, instructional tasks, and assessment.
  4. The shift toward cognitive constructivism as the dominant learning theory guiding instruction.

National Standards for Foreign Language Learning

Standards for foreign language education recently completed development by a collaboration of The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG), and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP). The standards embrace five broad goal areas upon which state and local curriculums could be designed. The five “C”s of foreign language education are Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. Eleven standards were derived from these goal areas.

Global Competence

The design of a language program is shaped by the purposes it is intended to serve. These purposes will influence decisions about which languages to learn, the onset and duration of instruction, the instructional delivery system, and assessment practices. Achieving the objective of Goal Three of the National Education Goals Panel—competence in more than one language—means offering an uninterrupted sequence of instruction and advanced levels of study, improving pre-service teacher education, and providing opportunities to teachers and students for study abroad.

Communicative Tasks

If students are to be competent communicators in real-life situations, then instruction must adequately prepare them to function in authentic cultural contexts. The goal of performing with language requires class sizes small enough to allow students sufficient time for speaking.

Leadership in the area of performance assessment has come from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), in particular the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. The nonlinear nature of learning must be reflected in the design of assessment instruments. Standardized tests must be developed to assess proficiency—rather than achievement only—and to reflect the holistic orientation of proficiency.

Learning Theory

Recent research on the brain and how children learn supports a cognitive constructivist theory of learning. Constructivism puts emphasis on the students making meaning and approximating a norm rather than on mastery, that is, on producing perfect utterances at the outset. Research on learning styles calls for adapting content, pacing, and methods of instruction to suit individual learners.

What We Can Expect Nationwide:

  1. Increased opportunities for an early start, followed by an extended sequence of second language study.
  2. Extensive opportunities for the professional development of in-service teachers.
  3. Improved pre-service teacher development in the areas of language, culture, and pedagogy.
  4. The issue of national standards and testing will be behind us as local schools concentrate on how to improve in order to meet the standards. Standards for this field do not resemble those in many curricular areas, for students begin study at different ages and continue for different lengths of time. Standards vary according to the difficulty of the language for speakers of English.


  1. Second language instruction as part of the academic core.
  2. Alternative delivery systems, such as immersion, Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES), and Foreign Language Exploratory (FLEX) programs, that tie directly into the secondary school programs.
  3. Carnegie units as graduation requirements replaced by outcomes measured by performance assessment.
  4. Increased uses of technology, especially multimedia and telecommunications.


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