Modern Languages Across the Curriculum
reviewed by ZhaoHong Han - 2003
Coincidentally, about three years ago, I reviewed, at the request of Language Teaching Research, a book by Michael Grenfell (Han, 2001). So when the Teachers College Record invited me to write a review of Grenfell’s new book, I agreed almost immediately – driven largely by my curiosity as to what the researcher had done since his last book. Also, knowing that the researcher came from the field of foreign language teaching as opposed to TESOL and SLA where I had been, I was looking forward to an opportunity to bring myself up-to-date with the latest developments in that camp. Admittedly, for years, lurking at the back of my mind has been the conception -- widely shared among colleagues in my field as well -- that the teaching of modern foreign languages, in general, lags behind the teaching of English as a second and/or foreign language, both in terms of learning theories and pedagogic principles. Is this conception true today? With these curiosities, I began my reading.
Unlike the last book by Grenfell that I reviewed, which deals with learner strategies and strategy instruction, this book is about an innovative approach to teaching modern foreign languages, called ‘modern languages across the curriculum’ (MLAC henceforth). In essence, the pedagogic approach advocates the integration of subject disciplines (e.g., Mathematics, Biology) with the learning of foreign languages (e.g., German, Norwegian), and is, as Grenfell framed it, a strategic response to the language needs across the member states of an expanding European Union.
The book is neatly organized into four parts with chapters contributed both by Grenfell and by other researchers. Part 1 gives a general introduction to MLAC; Part 2 provides case examples of the implementation of MLAC in a number of European countries; Part 3 shares with the reader the authors’ practical experiences in developing materials and lesson plans in a MLAC context; and Part 4 talks about preparation of MLAC teachers. Each part begins with an introduction by Grenfell to foreshadow the main issues that will be discussed in the subsequent chapters and closes with his conclusion to highlight what he considers to be important and insightful points.
A brief summary of each chapter follows.
To begin, Part 1 contains a chapter by Van Essen and one by Grenfell. Van Essen (i.e., Chapter 2) provides a historical perspective on modern foreign language teaching, and in so doing, attempts to show that MLAC is a natural outcome of the evolution of foreign language pedagogy. MLAC is considered to be the newest offshoot of Communicative Language Teaching, a methodology that has dominated the last three decades. As such, it puts accent on meaning as opposed to form, on group as opposed to individual learning, and on learner-centeredness as opposed to teacher-centeredness. It departs, however, from Communicative Language Teaching in that it champions a) using a foreign language as the medium of content-subject learning and vice versa, and b) spreading language learning across the teaching and learning of a variety of school subjects (e.g., History, Religion, Geography). Language learning is therefore not regarded merely as an end in itself. Chapter 3 by Grenfell is an attempt to relate theories of language learning to MLAC, in order to justify its emergence. This is achieved through bringing together two broad -- oftentimes polarized -- perspectives on language learning: the ‘psycho-centric’ (i.e., focusing on how language develops in the brain) and the ‘socio-centric’ (i.e., focusing on language as social construction). MLAC is then depicted as capable of forging a link between the two -- specifically between languages, the content of language, the cognitive skills and strategies, and of improving motivation by providing common skills, interests, and experiences.
Following the exposition of the rationale of MLAC, Chapters 4-9 (contributed by Springer, Van de Caren, Wolff, Marsh, Coonan, and Pérez-Vial) present 6 case examples illustrating the implementation of MLAC in 6 European countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Italy, and Spain. Each chapter (i.e., case example) begins with a brief sketch of the history of foreign language teaching in a given country, and it then proceeds to a more detailed description of MLAC implementations; statistics are given where appropriate to show the coverage of the MLAC programs.
Most important in this section is that issues and challenges are identified, revealing much uniformity across the different geographical contexts as well as diversity. Common to all contexts are such challenges as a) how to assess the learning outcome of MLAC; b) how to achieve a double focus (i.e., subject matter and language) in a classroom; c) how to implement MLAC with learners at low levels of foreign language proficiency; and d) how to prepare MLAC teachers. As a result of diverse interpretations and resolutions of these challenges, a wide variety of local variants of MLAC have come into existence.
The ensuing section, labeled Part 3, has one chapter (i.e., Chapter 10 jointly authored by Grenfell, Hardy, Brown, Dobson, and Raimato) that shares sample materials and techniques used by practitioners in some MLAC programs in the UK. Among other things, these practical materials provide yet another window into idiosyncrasies. As Grenfell notes, “[they] demonstrate individual responses to the issues of developing communicative competence in meaningful settings” (p. 164).
Part 4 consists of two chapters (11 and 12) on MLAC teacher education. Chapter 11 (authored by Hellekjaer and Simensen) examines the question of what MLAC teachers need to know, and subsequently proposes an agenda for educating MLAC teachers that features three elements: the subject-matter element, the foreign language element, and the pedagogical element. Suggestions are then made to encourage international co-operation, the use of information technology, and distance learning. Similarly, Chapter 12 (jointly authored by Hardy, Grenfell, Brown, Raimato, and Valet) proposes a model for MLAC teacher education that encompasses a) subject-specific content knowledge, b) subject-specific pedagogical knowledge, c) foreign-language competence, and d) foreign language knowledge. Sample training materials are provided accordingly. In addition, there are sample activities that are designed to develop learner strategies.
Overall, the book is well organized and offers a fresh perspective on modern foreign language teaching. However, like most other edited volumes, it suffers from lack of coherence. Even though there is a unifying theme that ties the four parts together, each chapter therein shows considerable deviation from it, owing, to some extent, to the fact that the chapters are written by different authors operating in divergent environments. As a consequence, it is hard for the reader to construct a complete picture of MLAC, let alone a firm grasp of its underlying principles.
Perhaps a greater contributing factor to the difficulty lies in the fact that the first two chapters fail to provide a cogent and systematic account of the theoretical basis of MLAC. Chapter 3, in particular, is wanting in terms of providing a theoretical framework. While some learning theories have been drawn upon to justify parts of MLAC, the chapter is done in such a superficial manner that the theories do not render a systematic account of how MLAC can lead to linguistic development. In fact, throughout the book, there is little discussion of language learning and nothing about issues such as learner readiness and cross-linguistic influence, which are central to an understanding of any second language development in any context.
Related to the above-mentioned gap is also the observation that the book makes no attempt to deal with the issue of grading and sequencing of teaching/learning materials, even though discussions of materials abound throughout. Failure to do so undoubtedly degrades the value of the book considerably inasmuch as it ignores and disregards psycholinguistic processes of language learning, as manifested in some of the predecessors to MLAC.
A further disappointment is that the content of the book is primarily experience-based rather than research-based. As such, it is limited both in validity and generalizability.
The above comments notwithstanding, the book is one of the few available that report on current innovations in the field of modern foreign language teaching, and it therefore deserves the attention of second language researchers and practitioners.
Han, Z-H. (2001). (Commissioned) Review of Grenfell & Harris (1999) Modern Languages and Learning Strategies in Theory and Practice. Language Teaching Research, 5(3), 270-273.