As Foreign Language Programs Dwindle, Online Learning Fills The Gap

Feb 13, 2015

Schools across the nation, including in Vermont, are not teaching as much foreign language as they used to. When budgets are tight, those courses are often cut. Some schools are filling the gap with technology.

But principals readily concede online language learning cannot replace — and is best combined with — high quality, face-to-face instruction.

In the Northeast Kingdom, not far from the Canadian border, Coventry School enrolls about 100 students, kindergarten through eighth grade. There’s no money for a foreign language teacher. So, like about 20 other schools state-wide, Coventry uses software developed by Middlebury Interactive, a spin-off from the Vermont college.

On a recent morning, a handful of seventh graders click their way through French lessons as Cory Valentine, a math teacher, looks on. Through his headphones, Tyrell Dowland hears a voice counting with an impeccable accent — “deux, trois, quatre” — all the way up to "dix," or 10. He repeats the numbers, with an almost-authentic, Gallic trill to his “r’s.”

Tyrell occasionally hears words like these at home.

“Mostly because my Nana comes from Canada, and she was French there, so that's why she's French,” he explains.

He would like to speak French with his cousins, and maybe get a job that requires him to be bilingual. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts translation and interpretation to be among the fastest growing occupations by 2020, and bilingual workers earn 5 to 20 percent more than mono-lingual ones. Yet only 18 percent of citizens in the U.S. are bilingual, compared with 53 percent in Europe.

Coventry Principal Matthew Baughman knows that his students are unlikely to become fluent just by talking to a Francophile computer. But he’s taught on four continents, and he wants these rural kids to know about a world beyond Vermont.

“And I can tell you from first-hand experience, knowing how to work with people who come from a different culture is challenging but incredibly important,” Baughman says.

In Coventry’s second grade, Julie Casey supplements the computer program with classroom dialog.

“J’ai sept ans,” her students recite in unison.

Matthew Baughman, Principal at Coventry School, observes Julie Casey's second graders learning to speak French with her.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“What does that one mean?” she asks.

“I am seven years old,” a little girl replies.

“Now say it in French for us,” Casey urges.

“J’ai huit ans,” the student answers.

“That would be eight,” another says, correcting her.

Maybe the math is a little wobbly there, but studies do show that kids who learn a second language do better in other subjects, including English and math. But it’s not clear how many Vermont students have that advantage. The Agency of Education has set standards for non-native language learning, but doesn’t collect data about which individual schools offer it. A 2003 survey by the Vermont Foreign Language Association estimated that only about 30 schools offered language courses. Association President Allison Litten hopes the tide is starting to turn, though. 

“I do believe that people are starting to realize, if we are going to be raising global citizens and having, you know, students that are really capable of understanding the world at large as it becomes more connected, maybe foreign language is not the thing to ax,” Litten says.

Allison Litten, French teacher at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, converses in French with third graders.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

Litten teaches French to Norwich elementary students and says she’s lucky to teach the language full-time at a school that may expand its program. Even third graders rarely hear or speak English in her class.

Litten sympathizes with more cash-strapped schools that have to teach languages solely by computer. Aline Germain-Rutherford, chief learning officer at Middlebury Interactive, says its interactive courses are ideally combined with face-to-face teaching. But when no teacher is available, a student can still progress at his or her own pace.

“The fact that from time to time a student can work on his own online, but then can work with a teacher in class offers options, actually, and answers to very different contexts that we find in schools,” she says.

Germain-Rutherford says Middlebury designed the computer courses to immerse students not just in a language, but in a culture, with videos of authentic speakers. She says schools can use as much or as little of the online learning as they see fit, depending on how well staffed and equipped their language programs are. And she hopes most will weave foreign languages into other subjects, as well.