Enhancing Language Ability and Education for the 21st Century

Taihu International Center, Suzhou, China, 5-6 June, 2014

Organized by
Ministry of Education (MOE) of the People's Republic of China
State Language Committee
National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO
People’s Government of Jiangsu Province

In partnership with

Hosted by
Jiangsu Provincial Language Commission
Jiangsu Provincial Department of Education
People’s Government of Suzhou
China Central Television (CCTV)

Sponsored by
China Education Publishing & Media Group Ltd.
Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press
Educational Science Publishing House

The International Conference on Language: Enhancing Language Ability and Language Education is taking place at a time of momentous change in the world. Unmistakable signs of the emergence of global society are all around us. Economic interdependency across the globe links the prosperity and life chances of millions of people. Travel and population movement have intensified cross-cultural encounters.

The Conference also coincides with a time of questioning of long held assumptions and practices in language learning and with elevated expectations about the language ability outcomes of the formal study of languages. During the past few decades the academic fields of linguistics, applied linguistics and sociolinguists, and sub-fields such as language testing, second language acquisition and language planning, have experienced the most intense research investment in history. This has produced a wealth of new insights into language abilities and how they are produced and sustained. From the brain to society, from the home to the school, from conversation to teaching, from identity to testing, all areas of human knowledge about language ability are being transformed.

We know, for example, that bilingual skills affect cognitive functioning, learning, and social relationships. Brain research has opened up remarkable insights showing the protective effects of bilingualism against some degenerative illness in old age extending the knowledge that early bilingualism can foster positive intellectual development in infants and small children.

Across the age spectrum, from infancy to old age, and across the cultures and nations of the world, language ability and social development are intimately connected. The preservation of endangered minority languages in biologically diverse ecosystems seems to support both linguistic and ecological sustainability. The learning of multiple languages in multicultural settings promotes social cohesion. Higher language abilities might also encourage individual creativity and support collaborative international economic relations.

In such ways and across the entire life cycle, evidence is mounting that the more highly developed the language abilities of an individual the more likely that person is to access employment, pursue creative and multicultural endeavours, and engage continuously in deeper learning and acquisition of skills.

For these reasons, language education deserves our full attention as an enabling factor contributing to the achievement of the aims that have motivated the convening of this Conference: language ability and sustainable social development, innovation and international exchange and cooperation.

Against this background, China is convening the ‘International Conference on Language - Enhancing Language Ability and Education for the 21st Century’ in partnership with UNESCO to reflect on challenges and new options for effective language education and planning by bringing together government officials, policy-makers, researchers, educators and development partners.

Language: the foundational human ability

As a unique characteristic of social groupings, language ability – spoken and written -- is the primary means by which humans express intelligence, expand horizons, acquire knowledge, engage and interact socially.

It is from language that human knowledge of the world is largely inherited and disseminated. Language cements human societies, creates and transmits cultural identities and founds civilizations. Social development and civil cohesion are tied closely to the ability of citizens to converse meaningfully, to resolve their differences through discussion and reach decisions which permit progress and create the conditions for prosperity and public security. Language ability has become increasingly important in a globalized and culturally diverse world.

At its 1999 General Conference UNESCO adopted the term ‘multilingual education’ through Conference Resolution 12 to refer to the use of at least three languages: the mother tongue, a regional or national language and an international language in education. This ambitious aim for linguistic and cultural diversity is central to the goals of this Conference and contributes to artistic creativity, technological innovation and social inclusion, question that will be discussed under the three themes of the conference.

In 2003 UNESCO issued Education in a Multilingual World, specifying multilingualism as the normal and permanent condition for development of language ability, also a central idea for the Conference, since the notion of language ability underlies all the languages of a speaker and his or her community.

Conference themes

The three themes that run through the Conference focus on critical contemporary issues related to language education. A global discussion of these themes can lead to deeper collaboration to achieve the goal of multilingual education.

Theme I: Language ability and sustainable social development
Language ability is a fundamental skill that enables humans to communicate and innovate. Developed to its highest degree it fosters better communication within societies, supports development of economic and social life and is at the core of human civilization. In order to promote sustainable human development, people increasingly have to learn a variety of languages. For language policy makers this implies developing new understandings about how to raise learners’ language abilities and develop plural language abilities in a continuously changing global context.

The Conference will discuss effective means and new approaches to enhancing language ability that satisfy the ever changing learning needs of learners and the demands of an integrating world economy and a fragile natural environment. To bring about effective language teaching to raise language abilities implies better language planning, and so the Conference will discuss how to improve education systems and the various policy options for addressing these challenges.

Theme II: Innovation in Language Education
Good quality language education is the most effective means for enhancing language abilities, and is the foundation for cognitive development and lifelong learning. The context of language learning has moved far beyond teaching national languages, in the contemporary world learners need to acquire new and multiple language abilities that enable intercommunity and international communication.

A key challenge is to develop creative and innovative ways of providing good quality language education so that it continuously responds to the needs of learners and remains relevant in our changing world. The Conference will explore new trends in technology mediated learning, innovative methods and networking possibilities in language teaching, and programming innovations from diverse parts of the world responding to local challenges. Delegates will examine the most effective pedagogical approaches used by educators and explore research based curriculum and pedagogical innovation for quality education. The Conference will also provide an opportunity to share new developments in language planning and policy writing and innovative practices related to the challenge of teaching in multilingual settings.

Theme III: International exchange and cooperation
Learning a new language can facilitate entry into a new culture, a way of being and knowing the world. It can open new doors to the future and facilitate understanding between individuals and societies. Languages are important tools for communication between individuals, groups and nations. Advancing language ability and enhancing cultural exchanges jointly support the foundations of intercultural understanding and sustainable human development.

A new form of humanism is needed to operate in a global context which is both competitive and interdependent. Educators across the world must recognize their new role as promoters of intercultural communication and understanding, with language ability as a key element of this. In light of these crucial links between language ability and social cooperation the third theme of the Conference is devoted to international exchange to compare current practice, and explore new and promising developments.

The discussion will explore greater collaboration and exchange of information about schemes of academic, student and researcher exchange, good practices in fostering enduring teams for shared research and sharing of research outcomes. Building on existing good practices in language education and language translation abilities, this seminar will discuss how to further promote international cooperation in this area amongst concerned stakeholders across the different regions.

These themes provide the structure of the Conference, but each of them refers to the overall purpose of the Conference to enhance language ability and education for the 21st Century. Wider processes that influence and shape this central purpose of the Conference are discussed below, each serving to support language ability, innovation in language education and international collaboration and exchange in the context of the radically changed environment of the 21st century.

The processes of language learning

All infants are tutored into full knowledge of language, their mother tongue and primary language of identity, in the intimacy of family and home. Parents and other caregivers, siblings, extended family members, and even trusted strangers, interact with an infant on the assumption that the child will learn to speak and in so doing enter the social community of communication. This process is the primary intellectual activity of childhood, socializing children, inducting them into their culture and its norms, and laying the foundation for eventual acquisition of literacy, advanced concepts, abstract thinking, additional languages, skills and competencies appropriate to adult citizens and workers.

Yet while all children succeed in acquisition of the mother tongue in age-old and culture-specific processes, the majority of those who enter the formal study of second languages at school fail to achieve mastery. The dramatic contrast between success in learning of the first language and non-success in the learning of second languages is instructive.

The context of second language education is different, but some of the factors and conditions that produce successful learning of the mother tongue, suggest we should pay more attention to its qualities, processes, duration and participants. The hope is that we can reinvigorate all language teaching and learning, including the teaching of second languages. How can reflecting on the deepest processes and widest experience of language learning success help us to enhance language ability and education for the 21st Century?

Technology: a new world of learning

The emerging global society has diversified learner populations in classrooms all over the world, with increased circulation of people, ideas, goods and services and producing “super-diversity” as multilingualism and multiculturalism become typical of 21st century life.

The impact of advanced communication technologies play a crucial role in this, one which is as immense as it is irreversible. These technologies permit real-time unmediated communication and are not confined to wealthy and prosperous countries. The most obvious consequence of these technologies is on the means through which language education can take place but they also impact on how teachers manage, plan and deliver programs of teaching.

Essentially communication technologies allow differentiation of content and teaching according to the needs and abilities of individuals or small groups of learners and enrich classroom experience by making links with language use in the wider society.

Allied to communication technologies are networking technologies which extend these changes so that the role of teaching is transformed. Whereas once teachers were the sole source of language input to learners, they are increasingly becoming managers of a range of learning resources and inputs for students. Guided by the knowledge, monitoring and experience of language professionals, students can participate in collaborative activity in language programs that push well beyond the bounds of classrooms, lessons and schools.

Most recently these networking and communication technologies have given rise to the development and success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) a profound expansion of distance and e-learning methods, allied to open licensing of content, radio, traditional snail mail correspondence, mobile and landline telephones, and recalling aspects of television programming.

What are the ultimate possibilities of such tele-collaboration across distance? For language learning, how will these links between learners of one language with age peer speakers of that language, transform exchange, learning and communication? What consequences for teaching does real-time desktop videoconferencing have in language teaching? One consequence that appears likely is that past limits on what languages could be taught, and to whom, dependent on required ratios of employed teacher to minimum numbers of students, may become obsolete.

Communications technologies extend beyond resources available online, and include the devices to access and produce such resources, and various collaborative and networking systems. Among these are email, online forums and chat groups of diverse kinds, the multiple forms of social media, real-time video-communication on hand-held as well as desk-top devices, online games with dispersed multi-participant formats. Instant online translation, language teaching and learning sites and resources, and language specific online coaching, connecting and informing apps and activities, supplement and enrich the field of possibilities.

These possibilities displace learning temporally (i.e. away from reliance of fixed time classroom lessons), and spatially (access is possible practically everywhere to everywhere else), and hence transform relations between teachers, learners and subject matter. Communication itself is modified by spelling checkers, translators, and oral production records, on hand held devices with standard phrases, routine communication and the ability to command just-in-time assistance.

One consequence of this will be that the models available for students to emulate will themselves change, no longer will a teacher’s voice, accent, and other linguistic features represent the totality of input available to a learner. In effect, language learning is now available vertically, from teachers, textbooks and authorities to learners but also horizontally, as communication between learners is unmediated by teachers, parents or other authorities.

How can we make the most of these radical transformations to teaching, communication and learning that modern technologies are producing to enhance language ability and education for the 21st Century?

International Cooperation and Exchange

The cultural impacts of these changes are deep but perhaps unpredictable at this stage of their development. A clear assumption of foreign language study was that students were prepared “in vitro”, i.e. in the safe environment of the home country class, lesson and school; for occasional and temporary meetings, encounters or exchange with native speakers. This involved travel and displacement to the setting in which the studied language was not foreign, but native, to its home context and natural environment.

These assumptions that interaction would follow language study are being dissolved by the facilitation of contact before mastery of the language is achieved. Interaction now occurs at any stage of the process of acquiring a second language and often is unmediated by teachers or parents or education systems, usually occurring instead in ‘neutral’ space made available by technology, and for possibly limitless occasions.

How does this interaction which is afforded by online networks differ from face to face encounters? What kinds of culture are produced, or obscured, in these processes?

Reciprocal learning of languages makes possible more equal relationships, it brings interlocutors into access and available to each other via desktop or hand-held machine, it encourages mutual learning through exchange, mentoring and shared activities. All of this means that language education today is at the peak of interactivity in its efforts to engage learners and to apply the fruits of learning. What initiatives can be taken through the Conference to make the most of these possibilities? How can we support growth and deepening of international exchanges to enhance language ability and education for the 21st Century?

Global society

Technology transformations accompany and deepen large scale transformations in the social and work lives of humans. Unprecedented levels of migration characterise our world today. Human movement is an essential component of contemporary globalization which over the past four decades has diversified and intensified.

Today, the duration of population shifts and the participants involved in human mobility have all expanded so that vastly greater numbers of people are mobile. The reasons for their mobility and the legal, social, economic bases of the movement of people are also themselves more diverse than in the past.

As a result, language education all across the globe now occurs in conditions of multiculturalism, multilingualism and in multi-faith environments. Languages were once taught in the expectation that learners would be studying foreign content, distant from them and their experience, but today growing numbers of learners are familiar with many aspects and information about the other, a normal condition in cosmopolitan urban areas. In this way the presence of local multicultural populations anticipates a future of seamless internationalism.

National states, boundaries and limits remain and will endure, however beyond and in addition to the ethnic and national identities of traditional life, increasing numbers of young people have local familiarity with what was once distant and different. In language education they will be engaged in the study of cultural forms and practices, traditions and values that are also available to them virtually and often directly within immigrant communities as part of their national society.

Diaspora communities have long been the forerunners of modern-day networks. Most human networks have been based on language, faith, or ethnicity but in the contemporary world are increasingly formed out of common interest, professional practices, romance, culture, study, exploration, and discovery. A powerful modern example of this is clear all across the world as the study and acquisition of Chinese expands/ attracting new learners who interact with local Chinese communities and connect with global settings where Chinese culture is admired and with states where Chinese is the official language and the national tradition.

In networks, cultural practices are assimilated into expanded repertoires of values, abilities interests, and relationships so that geographically dispersed groups of people, across diverse parts of the world are linked in instantaneous, multi-modal chains of communication. These allow individuals to maintain connections with places far from the place of residence. Identity is not confined to places we inhabit physically, but extends to places we admire, to which we have connection, from which we originate, or to which we intend to travel, study or work.

Alongside ethnic and linguistic diversity is the emergence of new ways to understand culture and identity, no longer realistically seen as singular and exclusively tied to a bounded territory increasing numbers of young people are connected to forms of music, expression, dress, behavior and values that are global in scale and which are often hybrid creations.

This transnational reality of contemporary culture has immediate consequences for the study of foreign languages, not simply because some of its cultural forms are familiar to learners. An equally powerful reason is because there is a noticeable, still small yet growing; sense of a more inclusive identity available to today’s young, suggesting the emergence of truly global kinds of human identification.

What are the likely patterns and norms of language study in society when we have such vast mobility allied to possibilities of immediate encounter with what was once foreign and unavailable? All these elements of globalisation are transforming the assumptions on which much of foreign language education has proceeded for decades or even centuries. Since the society of the early 21st century is in the midst of these changes their true nature and ultimate impact elude us, even if we can detect their direction.

Language education for a global future

Increasing globalisation creates demand for a workforce able to communicate in multiple languages to support interaction and exchange, trade and tourism, international relations, media and science, all the endeavours undertaken within a single national community in national languages extended to a globally imagined society, with additional languages.

It should be an ambition of universal language education for this bilingualism to be additive, extending the language skills of learners, rather than subtractive, as happens too often, where acquired and dominant languages replace the original language of the learner. This ambition can only be achieved by promulgating policies of language inclusion and diversity and by fostering innovation in language methodology and improvement. The history of dominant and dominating languages reaches back into antiquity but exchange, collaboration, policy and enlightened intervention can be marshalled to ensure that endangered languages are supported, that language offerings are diversified and that all populations learn languages additional to their native tongues.

The new technologies of today greatly improve the likelihood of increasing success rates in second language study, but evidence based policies and more extensive and practice based research needs to be supported to ensure that more learners, studying more languages, achieve permanent and high level bilingualism. The benefits are now well attested, whether it is in intellectual functioning of individuals, or in cultural tolerance and openness for whole societies, bilingualism is a resource of precious value to the future global society we can see emerging.

The Conference will consider structural questions related to language ability, sustainability and international relations. It will also discuss functional questions related to the roles and purposes of language in society and in the lives of individuals. Finally, it will discuss interactive questions related to exchange, cooperation and assistance, the mechanisms which already exist and those that need to be created, to give concrete experience to the study and acquisition of language ability.

These three elements - structural, functional and interactive- are central to the themes of the Conference and the selection of sub-themes. The discussion that ensues will be directed towards producing recommendations that will energise efforts to give voice to the interconnected and sustainable international global order which is emerging.

The Conference represents an unprecedented opportunity for global discussions on how transformations of technology, population mobility and research in language learning can support a new impetus towards enhancing language abilities in our world. New language abilities, wider, deeper and more diverse, will be essential to allow humanity to tackle the deep challenges of sustainable social development.