Here at NML, our articles and interviews have had many focuses, including language in the defense interest, language education, and language policy. But we do not always see how private businesses and entrepreneurs are using languages as stepping stones or for jobs.
Dr. Jeff Samuels, a friend of the Museum, and a member of the Maryland Foreign Language Association, is the owner of World Languages 360, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting students with language skills from the Maryland area with jobs that are looking for specific language requirements. I had the great pleasure to have an email interview with Dr. Samuels to learn more about this mostly unexplored opportunity to promote languages, and here is what he had to say.
Tell me about your background in languages.
Aside from my parents playing music and talking to me in utero (this was the early 1960s, after all), I was exposed to multiple languages very early on. My parents were instrumental in bringing what I believe was the first Montessori school to Baltimore, and I was enrolled as a young child. I remember Miss Burgite, one of the teachers, who taught us to count in Swedish and other languages. I eventually made it to 8th grade where we were given the option of French or Spanish. I chose French, and quickly discovered that I had an ability and an affinity for it. I’m sure it was related to my early exposure as well as my musical ear and training. The audiolingual method notwithstanding, there were a few of us who picked things up quickly and were able to go beyond memorization and repetition of dialogs and vocabulary lists. A short spring vacation trip to Paris and I was hooked.
Two years later, I added a Spanish class that combined the first 2 levels into a single year, meant for students who were already taking another language or who had failed the 1st year of Spanish and wanted to catch up. That was very enjoyable and fast-paced, though the method was the same. We moved over the summer, and I started my junior year at another high school, where I was able to move into Spanish IV (skipping a year) and French IV. During my senior year, I took advantage of a “College in Escrow” program and enrolled in 300 level courses in both French and Spanish in the Fall, at the convenient nearby university, and then French and Spanish V in the Spring back at my high school.
In college, I went directly into upper level courses (literature and civilization topics) in both languages, eventually spending my junior year abroad in Bogotá, Colombia. It eclipsed my French to a point, though I picked that back up upon returning. I also added a year of Russian, for fun, during my senior year.
After college, I landed a job as a provisional teacher in the nearby city school system, teaching Spanish for a year. I then pursued a M.A. in Latin American Studies, and later enrolled in a PhD Program in History. During my coursework, I taught either History or Spanish courses, and of course my Spanish got used a lot more than my French—though French was still functional, especially when we’d study Haiti or the history of the Atlantic slave trade and experience.
After my coursework and doctoral exams, I taught Spanish for a year at a state university back in Baltimore, then spent a summer in Honduras doing dissertation research. Unfortunately, that didn’t really pan out, so I ended up for several years at a liberal arts college where I taught Spanish, Latin American History courses, and supported Academic Technology via running the language lab. I moved more broadly into Academic Technology as well as Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), joining the International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT), the Mid-Atlantic Association for Language Learning Technology (MAALLT), as well as the Maryland Foreign Language Association (MFLA), and of course attending regional conferences like NECTFL and national ones like ACTFL. I remain on the Board of the MFLA to this day and am quite active in IALLT and ACTFL. I’m also a CALICO member.
However, I did move on from the idyllic college several years ago, doing curriculum development work for an education company, but not in languages. I also pursued and completed a PhD in Information Technology-Education with a dissertation topic in the field of CALL. I left my curriculum development director position in 2017 to devote my full attention to the educational nonprofit I co-founded in 2014 (but which had languished somewhat due to lack of time to devote to it), that we named World Languages 360.
So, my first language is English, my second by proficiency level would be Spanish, then French, Russian, and finally, Hebrew for religious purposes, with a smattering of Yiddish for cultural identity and sense of humor. Of course, between Spanish and French, I can read and comprehend the other Romance languages and Latin to a point, but I don’t typically count those as I have had no formal study.
What exactly is World Languages 360?
Conceptually, World Languages 360 is meant to be a hybrid between a nonprofit organization and an educational (professional) entity, like a think tank with outreach and consultancy. Functionally speaking, it is configured as a nonprofit, complete with 501(c)3 status, so that it can receive the benefits of said status. The current mission statement of the organization is:
“The Mission of World Languages 360 is to promote the development of a globally competent, multilingual workforce transcending the boundaries of the traditional classroom by providing opportunities for second language learners to improve their linguistic capabilities in real-world settings.”
So, our organization hopes to see the day when language learners reach a certain level of proficiency and as a matter of common practice are afforded the opportunity to use the target language in real-world organizational settings. This career-based, applied approach does not mean to supplant the classroom experience or study abroad opportunities, but to supplement and expand upon them as a foundation. By tapping into learners’ career interests and interdisciplinary academic interests, there are several benefits. These include harnessing a learner’s intrinsic motivation, exposing that same learner to potential career paths, linking language study and the study of other academic disciplines, affording an opportunity to experience workplace culture and another culture that uses the target language simultaneously, and promoting self-efficacy and learner-centeredness. At the time of this writing, Can-Do statements (editor’s note: ACTFL’s objectives of what a language learner can do at a certain proficiency level) are becoming a common practice, which are meant to be learner-centered and self-evaluative in nature. Imagine the goals and activities learners can set and devise for themselves using the Can-Do framework coupled with workplace experiences that are language-intensive.
World Languages 360 strives to become the vehicle for interaction and communication in the efforts to promote career readiness, global competence, and language proficiency, among various stakeholders: including learners themselves, educators, educational institutions, professional organizations and associations, and of course, workplace settings—broadly defined—such as small businesses, nonprofits, large enterprises, and government entities.
In order to organize and conceptualize our work, we have prioritized four areas that correspond to the four directional orientation points on a compass (hence the “360” theme): Networking, Scholarship, Education, and Workplace. Networking refers to collaboration with education and professional organizations that are in the same space and have aligned and complementary interest to ours. Scholarship is the research and practical application of research to support best practices and successes in language learning in applied settings. Education represents the development of curricula, approaches, and methodologies to integrate a workplace focus and workplace experiences with academic programs. Finally, Workplace encompasses programs for individual learners, groups, classes, or larger cadres of learners through which they are able to achieve higher levels of language proficiency.
With whom have you made connections? What kind of work do you generally find for them?
We are still very much in the initial “startup” phase in terms of programming. Currently, we have made connections with various elements and organizations of the aforementioned compass points. In some cases, we’re developing formal relationships and programs, whereas in others, we’re simply making our presence known and seeking synergies and simply figuring out the lay of the land.
We have started locally, in Maryland, with colleagues whom we have met through the Maryland Foreign Language Association, the Towson University Incubator, and elements of the State of Maryland government. We have several pilot program proposals in various states of discussion, but the kind of activities tend to fall under the category of the Workplace and Education areas noted above. There is a private high school with whom we’re proposing to co-develop a language-based independent study course–workplace-based, naturally. We’re also in discussions with a county public school system on a number of potential ventures from in-service workshops for teachers to project-based learning opportunities for classes of students as well as potential individual internship opportunities. At a university, we are exploring at least one language-specific career fair as well as possible opportunities for language learners coming back from study abroad experiences. These are pilot programs we intend to use as a springboard for a fuller effort, thus ending our “startup” phase.
Broader connections range from professional organizations such as the ones mentioned above, to advisory groups and task forces and their component members who serve communities where multiple languages are commonplace. These include a focus both on foreign languages for native speakers of English and English for non-native speakers. We’re just now starting to look at how we can support highly skilled immigrants learning English, for example.
What have been some of the challenges?
As with any newer nonprofit or professional organization, challenges have included figuring out where to start, what to prioritize, and how to sustain the organization itself. Most people hear the term “nonprofit” and think about an organization that has a social safety net type of focus. Take for example charities and community-based organizations that provide critical support in the areas of food, healthcare, housing, and the like. If we were to put our mission up against such an organization, in a competitive perspective, we would lose every time. If learners don’t become more proficient in a second language, nobody goes hungry or loses their home. So, the first challenge is explaining that the mission of the organization is in response to a critical but longitudinal need both for our nation and for individuals. That means that grants are harder to identify and that partnerships with other organizations are also harder to form. Funding sources other than grants for social safety net programs do exist, and there are other means of revenue such as memberships and fee for services that can sustain the organization.
Another challenge is less on our part and more on the part of educators and organizations who, while receptive to our mission and vision, find themselves spread rather thin. Such colleagues often intend to collaborate or use our services to further develop their own programs or teaching and learning, but the academic calendar and institutional requirements take up their time and attention. Or, in the case of organizations, business imperatives and staffing responsibilities relegate working with us to a lesser priority than meeting business targets. We are working on our own timing, appointment setting, and outreach to these educators and collaborating organizations, to support them without imposing on their limited time and energy.
Finding the academic and practitioner-based research to support the effectiveness of language learning in non-traditional settings is somewhat challenging, though not impossible. Envisioning a research agenda and carrying that out becomes challenging as it requires both a track record that we have not yet established, as well as a longitudinal and multifaceted research agenda. Support for such scholarship is a potential challenge.
A final challenge has been the simple reality that our organization seeks to bridge stakeholders who live in worlds that don’t necessarily overlap. Businesses and other types of organizations are somewhat segmented by sector, size, and other factors. Beyond that, there seems to be a paucity of overlap and collaboration between organizations and educational organizations. Of course, there are a number of exceptions, and models do exist, such as Future Business Leaders of America. Starting something like that more or less from scratch is a tall order. Relationships between organizations on the one hand, and school systems, universities, or professional educational organizations on the other do exist, and building upon them and holding them up as models for others is a starting point to address this challenge.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into a similar business?
Certainly, the very first piece of advice would be to understand the true meaning of the term “nonprofit” and its implications for organizational structure, mission, and governmental requirements. A number of for-profit ventures related to language learning exist, and all it takes is a stroll through the exhibitor hall at a large language educator convention to see the various kinds. There are software companies, translation/interpretation companies, study abroad companies, and publishers. From a nonprofit perspective, there are professional organizations with various areas of focus, and of course a variety of academic programs and national language centers. Job 1 would be to investigate the lay of the land, and to find entities that may support or even already operate in the target space for your endeavor. If you have decided to organize yourself as a nonprofit, you have one set of requirements and immediate challenges. If you are for-profit, then you have to plan carefully and engage in financial planning and seek investors. Different sets of questions from different stakeholders need to be anticipated and addressed convincingly and with evidence. There is also a lot of overlap, or more precisely, a number of considerations that will need to be addressed regardless of profit motive.
Secondly, I would advise anyone seeking to establish a new venture to establish a broad network of colleagues and to use that network to collect gems of wisdom from those who have experiences to share, pitfalls to avoid, and connections to offer. Always look for tangential and indirect areas of confluence and shared interests. Widen that circle, and you will begin to see a larger system in which you can potentially operate. If you fail to do this, you’ll find yourself in an echo chamber, which make prevent your organization from really taking hold.
Finally, I would advise talking to people like project managers and entrepreneurs who can guide you in developing a sense of what you want to accomplish, what you have in place, what you need, and the timing to execute on it effectively. Earlier, I referenced challenges of what to prioritize and where to start. Most likely, you will rattle off a list of possible endeavors and programs, and it will be tempting to give the grease to the squeakiest wheel or engage in the activities with which you are the most familiar and self-sufficient. It is not likely that those are where you should start, however. Pitch decks, 5-year plans, mission and vision statements, logic models, and other tools and work products will reveal the best path upon which you should embark. Just don’t do them all yourself, with limited input. Vet them broadly.
What would help, in your mind, increase the number of people speaking languages at a level they can use it for work or business?
In short, we need to tap in to learners’ intrinsic motivations to learn a language. The formal language classroom is central to our nation’s current teaching and learning model, and I would argue for its retention. I would hasten to add that interactions both synchronous and asynchronous with native speakers of the target language are now much more possible because of technology and infrastructure. Of the 4 skills, speaking is perhaps the most challenging when the interactions are limited to the other students and the instructor. But they don’t need to be.
In order to progress up the proficiency scale, and then to live and work in a business or other organizational environment, learners need more than linguistic proficiency. Acquiring workplace skills such as presentation skills, or disciplinary knowledge such as medicine or engineering for example, also build career interests and enhance intrinsic motivation. Add in the target language while this is taking place, and you have a learner who upon graduation will be ready to move into a career and to use all 4 skills in the workplace setting. Wait until graduation, as we typically do now, and the only learners truly prepared for using the target language in the workplace will be native speakers, heritage learners (to an extent), and learners who studied abroad.
We need to provide opportunities for all language learners, not just those majoring in a language, to have intensive and culturally rich L2 experiences. We can do this via workplace-based experiences and technology, and it should be de rigeur. If we incentivize learners with internships, paid part time jobs, tuition support from employers, mentors, and exposure to other cultures and languages in or near the learners’ communities, we should see results. These are measurable via an uptick in learners staying with language study longer, attrition improvements, higher proficiency attainment, and a stronger link between our educational institutions and the other sectors of the economy. Our organization’s hope is that within 10 years or so, workplace-based language learning will be the norm and our national strategic language proficiency shortage will wane.
To learn more information about World Languages 360, please visit its website at http://worldlanguages360.org/.