Reconstructing The World Language Classroom
By Sara Withrow
As an academic authority in applied linguistics and critical pedagogy, Terry Osborn believes that the manner in which language is taught is a potential stimulant for creating a more socially just world. He wants to arm world language teachers with the tools to help students develop critical consciousness, to effect meaningful change for society.
“Good language instruction opens up new worlds, new ways of thinking,” said Osborn, a professor of second language acquisition at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.
In “World Language Education as Critical Pedagogy: The Promise of Social Justice,” coauthored by Osborn and published in 2020, he takes a critical look at traditional world language teaching practices and offers educators ideas for developing a new teaching model that reinforces ideals such as social justice, equity and democracy.
“A lot of times in language classrooms, students and teachers believe they’re just learning the nuts and bolts of language: vocabulary, grammar and a few cultural blurbs,” Osborn said. “But language education is different from a number of other subjects, because you can’t take the subject of language and separate it from the people who use the language. Very few [academic] subjects are attached to issues of identity and diversity as much as language education.”
“You can’t take the subject of language and separate it from the people who use the language.”
Osborn uses critical theory, which seeks to challenge social, historical and ideological structures and assumptions, to deconstruct language education of old, so that a more enlightened instructional process can take its place.
“Language teaching is a political act (or power-imbued),” he said. “Critical pedagogy recognizes that everything we do in schools – the curriculum, instruction and the things we don’t teach – are all tied to a value system that reflects struggles among segments of society.” Osborn believes the world language curriculum needs to be “de-sanitized,” so that topics deemed controversial are discussed. Qualitative studies show that students tend to be more motivated to learn foreign languages when teachers focus on real-life issues, such as homelessness, racism, discrimination and immigration, he said.
“We’ve been teaching students how to talk about their favorite hobby. In my experiences in Germany, I never once sat down on a train and had a stranger ask me, ‘What are your hobbies?’ It’s just not a conversation that happens,” Osborn said. “[In critical pedagogy] we’re moving away from artificial constructions of reality that do not play out in real life, and that don’t play out for the majority of our students.” According to Osborn, less than 1% of secondary school students travel to a foreign country.
Issues of identity, ethnicity and language, and how they play into trying to build a society that is more equitable, are much more relevant to students today, he said. “Social justice becomes the lodestar of where we’re directing language education.”
SETTING STUDENTS UP FOR SUCCESS
Osborn hopes the shift to critical pedagogy will lead to a greater respect and appreciation for language studies and the socio-cultural diversity that language embodies for society. Currently, U.S. students receive too few hours of world language training and start learning later than they should – usually as teenagers and adults.
“That’s a set up for failure,” Osborn said.
“A lot of what we’re doing is increasing the relevance of language to the everyday lives of students, so that future policymakers will see the value of language education and increase support for it – so that we can see gains in bilingualism or multilingualism in the United States.”
It will be a long process but Osborn is dedicated to it.
“I tell my colleagues; this is a multigenerational transition. But we have got to shift the way we are thinking about language education. It’s hugely educational for students, even if they don’t end up going overseas.”