In the United States, only 17% of citizens fluently speak a second language.  Due to the inherent lack of second-language instruction traditions in the United States, initial language acquisition techniques are plentiful but maintenance and language enhancement opportunities are lacking for adult learners. In our profession, these opportunities exist but are based on outdated models focusing on vocabulary testing, listening passages, and reading comprehension – methods that work for language acquisition but are poor for progression.  In order to provide enhanced training to propel our language professionals to the highest levels of proficiency, instruction methods need to be re-evaluated and updated to mirror the successful approaches of those who rely on second-language use in day-to-day interaction. By looking at organizations that train, sustain, and progress language capabilities as a matter of necessity, we can achieve 3/3 proficiency within the first ten years of military service.

When training students for initial acquisition of a foreign language, our current system of DLI/FLC instruction is more than adequate to get students to a baseline proficiency from which to grow and progress.  From this point, language skills typically degrade due to a focus on technical abilities and the expectation that since they’ve passed DLI and a DLPT recently, they do not need additional language training.  Quite the contrary, this is the time in a language professional’s career that should be fostered for enhancement.

In studying successful language instruction methods that progress students’ language capabilities, we do not need to reinvent the wheel.  By looking to a place like the European Union, where there are currently 24 officially recognized languages among member states, secondary (and often tertiary) language instruction is a necessity to ensure students are successful members of society upon graduation.  In developing methods to achieve fluency, the Commission of European Communities has recognized Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) as one of the most effective methods of language retention and vocabulary expansion, an important distinction when looking at military students who are aspiring to reach 3/3 from their initial base-line acquisition.  Rather than relying upon teacher initiated instruction, CLIL relies upon students’ interests to drive instruction with guidance and correction from teachers.  It is a fundamental shift in the classroom dynamic, but yields impressive results.

In Christiane Dalton-Puffer’s recent work describing CLIL examples in teaching English to European students, numerous cases point to the efficiency of content based learning to build greater fluency in second language acquisition and maintenance.  Students who held normal discussions, in a non-structured manner with guided vocabulary and grammar corrections from the instructor, showed marked improvement in vocabulary retention and confidence to try complex linguistic concepts in their second language learning.  Dalton-Puffer argues that, with correction when needed, students who are forced to utilize their second language in normal discussion about seemingly benign topics quickly gain the confidence and knowledge to apply the learned vocabulary and grammar concepts (learned through trial and error) towards reading, listening, and oral proficiency.

In application with a military student striving to achieve 3/3 proficiency, an instructor may prompt students to discuss their favorite sport, for example, and the details associated with that activity.  Through guided instruction of a topic that students may be interested in, discussions will inevitably include never before seen vocabulary and force the students to use this vocab in context.  Instead of a vocabulary list of a words that may be used in one lesson and then tested on (quickly to be forgotten), students have now utilized these words in context and reproduced them with their own ideas and structure.  The instructor can then record these words/grammar concepts, deciding which have the most cultural linguistic importance, for future focus and repetition.  Replacing outdated lessons and concepts with student focused/instructor guided natural conversation keeps students interested in the content but also invested in the language by their own reproduction.  Conveniently, these types of learning environments already exist and do not require a total restructuring of current language instruction programs post initial acquisition.  Through the use of language immersion schools and programs, Content and Language Integrated Learning occurs naturally and fluidly by the forced application of second language only instruction.

By transitioning from traditional “lecture” style education to content based discussions, students are left feeling in charge of their language progression and engaged in topics that interest them.  With careful guidance from the instructor, students’ skills progress naturally, based on their own level and needs.  Full immersion programs, such as Middlebury Language Schools and/or two week intensive immersion programs already offer these opportunities in combination with traditional teaching techniques.  By keeping initial acquisition programs (like DLI/FLC) in place and then changing existing programs within the military language courses towards a student-based discussion approach, the goal of 3/3 proficiency within 10 years is completely attainable.  As leaders focused on this goal, ensuring our language analysts are engaged in their own progression is the best way to accomplish this attainable proficiency.


About the author:  CTIC(NAC/IDW) Tyler Kirby is currently stationed at Navy Information Operations Detachment Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.  He was recently selected as the Navy’s 2015 Senior Language Professional of the Year.