The Future of Language Learning Part 4: Changing Communities, Growing Opportunities

In our first article of this series, we saw the changes that can be made at the federal level; these sweeping, overarching laws and spending bills can have a massive impact on how languages are taught and what money and funding is available to make these changes happen. However, as many of us know, governmental change is slow and methodical; what is passed in a spending bill this year may not bear its full fruit for another year or even longer. In many school districts across the country, this is simply too long of a wait, and local school boards are taking matters into their own hands. The Dallas Independent School District is one such community, where massive amounts of growth and progress in the quality and availability of language education opportunities have been taking place in the last few years.

Dallas is the one of the largest metropolitan area in the U.S., and shares many qualities with other large cities, including a high amount of racial diversity, with Hispanic and Latino people making up 43% of the population, African-Americans another 25%. With a large city also comes a large school district, over 155,000 enrolled students, and 95% of the population being Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) eligible.

However, when Amy Anderton, the Director of World Languages for Dallas ISD, entered the school district in her current position in March 2015, only 20,000 students were enrolled in any of the 7 language programs. Ms. Anderton saw this as an opportunity, not an issue. “I saw visionary principals who see the benefit of expanding languages, especially to kids who were already bilingual,” she told me in a phone interview, discussing how the program began to gain momentum. With support from principals, the school board, ACTFL, and the community, the program has now expanded to include 29,000 students, including an expansion of languages into elementary and middle schools, an exponential rate of growth for a language program. Even more impressively, the program expanded from 7 languages to 12, introducing Korean, Portuguese, and more in the past few years.

Ms. Anderton does not prescribe the success of the program just to herself or the school district however. She cites the amount of support and outreach from other teachers and community members being one of the keys to making this growth happen. The Korean program was brought to the school district from an education exchange between Houston and the Korean Education Ministry, and Portuguese came to the district “by luck.” Other programs were expanded by what was already available in the community. Some of Dallas’s top businesses have headquarters or offices in Germany, and Ms. Anderton saw this as an opportunity to collaborate between existing STEM programs and the world languages; while the German program only had 58 students when she arrived, now over 900 students learn the language while also learning about STEM and global business.

While it is obvious part of the future of language education is connecting to communities new and old, and turning the language program into the opportunity to bring learning to a global stage, it is the teachers that have really made the program the success it is. The teachers apply to the SPEAK UP philosophy of language learning, which challenges teachers to, for example “Keep input comprehensible” (the K of the acronym). By having a district-wide philosophy, students and teachers alike are all held to the same high standards, which is well aligned with the expectations from ACTFL and other governing language organizations. Another key factor was expanding and maintaining the opportunity for several languages, both common and uncommonly taught. “The best language to learn is the one you want to learn” is Ms. Anderton’s philosophy, and it shows every day through the rapid expansion of language choice in Dallas. She also sees this as an opportunity for already bilingual students to become multilingual, which as we will see through the article series, is rapidly becoming the goal for many language programs.

However, as with any successful program, there have been some mild setbacks. With the high poverty rate in Dallas comes many of the challenges that come with the fact. Although parents are supportive, many parents are immigrants with limited English skills, and there is not always an ability to show visible support, whether it be to working odd hours at jobs preventing parents from coming to conferences, a lack of transportation, or other factors. And although the language programs as a whole have gotten bigger, finding, and more importantly retaining, teachers can still sometimes be difficult. Perhaps most surprising during this expansion has been having more North African and Middle Eastern immigrants for French teacher positions. While this is a fantastic opportunity for diversity and using community members for their skills, it can be difficult to retain these teachers. “We are still an urban school district, and for some applicants it can be hard to connect with urban kids,” claims Ms. Anderton. She goes on to claim that principals are beginning to better understand that teachers must also understand kids, and that this will be an ongoing opportunity to develop quality teachers that understand the unique needs of these students.

So what can be made of the success of the Dallas ISD? For certain, it is clear that for language programs to not only grow but thrive, school districts will need to start looking more at the unique opportunities that their populations have, whether it be organizing local communities to bring some authentic culture to the classroom, demonstrating a willingness to train and grow new language programs, or taking an already bilingual child and focus on making them truly multilingual, each district will need to start personalizing their program to make it a success like Dallas. Likewise, a multi-faceted approach that involves as many high quality contributors as possible can make a program. Ms. Anderton directly pointed to her school board and Ivonne Durant, the Chief Academic Office for Dallas ISD, as fantastic compatriots for building the program. By working with her, the students, and the community as a whole, the program was built on a solid foundation to grow.

The Future of Language Learning is a continuing series for the National Museum of Language. If you have a unique perspective or insight on the learning of language in the 21st century, please contact to potentially be featured as part of an interview or article.