Interview with Dr. Aoki, Language Advocate
Michele Anciaux Aoki, Ph.D., P.M.P., International Education and World Languages Advocate
Molly Godwin-Jones: You have quite an extensive history with language learning: International Education Administrator for Seattle Public Schools, Co-Director of the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington, World Languages and International Education Program Supervisor at the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), among others. Could you help walk us through your language journey and give us a fuller picture of how you ended up on this path? What made you become interested in language learning?
Dr. Aoki: When you get to my age (retirement), it’s a long story. You could say that my first interest in things “international” was sparked when I was a child with an impossible name to pronounce (Michele Anciaux – would you believe “Michael Anxious”?). I heard stories from my dad about his grandfather coming from Belgium to Mexico then eventually settling in Barbados in the British West Indies. From these stories, I knew that I wanted to learn French, which I finally had the opportunity to do in 7th grade. Thanks to my mother’s involvement in international folk dancing, I knew songs and dances from all over Europe and sometimes other parts of the world. I became enchanted with the music, songs, and dances of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece), and dreamed of going there to live when I was 16. That actually came to pass, and I spent almost six months living in Macedonia (a republic in former Yugoslavia at the time) and learned to speak the language by listening to the radio, attending dance rehearsals, and hanging out with other young people. When I entered the University of Washington a year later, they told me I should study Russian since it was a Slavic language. The rest is history. I ended up getting my M.A. and Ph.D. in Slavic Linguistics, having studied (or “acquired” in country) Russian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian, plus Old Church Slavonic and Old Russian. But first I got my B.A. in Teaching English as a Foreign Language through General Studies (since ESL was not yet a field of study at the university) and I had the opportunity to teach English as a Fulbright lecturer in Romania, plus several years of teaching ESL students at the University of Washington.
I have always loved learning and teaching languages, but like many people with language degrees, I went into computer programming and systems analysis when it came time for a “real” job. After 20 years in that field, I made the leap back into languages when I was hired as a consultant by Seattle Public Schools to plan, implement, and evaluate their first International School with a language immersion program in 2000. Every other step of my career was a direct consequence of that opportunity.
Molly: In your keynote address at the 2019 IALLT conference, you discussed the concept of “Competency-Based Credits”–could you elaborate on how this method of awarding credit is different from “traditional” methods? Are there any advantages/disadvantages specifically for language learning for using this method (as opposed to a content course, for example)?
Dr. Aoki: The traditional way of earning high school credits (or even college credits) is to “sit” in a class that teaches you the content for which you will earn the credits. That’s why they call them “seat-time” credits. Counting time is a fairly easy way to calculate credits. But it’s also basically meaningless since students vary in their pace of learning and previous background knowledge, and teachers vary (greatly) in their skill in delivering instruction and meeting their students’ actual learning needs. The advantage of competency-based credits is that they are awarded based on evidence of skills that a student can demonstrate. It does not matter when/where/how the students got the knowledge and skills; they can still be recognized. The disadvantage of competency-based credits is that you need a reliable system of assessment (or testing) in order to determine that a student has actually met the learning targets for each credit.
Fortunately for us working in the language field, there has always been a need for government, business and industry to assess individuals’ language proficiency in order to hire diplomats, trade agreement negotiators, translators in medical settings, military officers, etc. If the assessments are available at a reasonable cost and with straightforward administration procedures, then it’s realistic to assess students and award them credits based on the test results. That situation has been steadily improving over the past couple of decades as ACTFL OPI (Oral Proficiency Interviews) became more widely available, and then new online assessments, like the Avant STAMP (Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency) and ACTFL OPIc (OPI computer-based) and later AAPPL (ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency) were launched.
So how does all this testing help with language learning? Well, it makes it clear what the goals of language learning are, i.e. to be able to function in the language through listening and speaking and also reading and writing. It also makes it clear that it’s not just a set of memorized vocabulary or grammar points. Students have to experience the language in authentic and meaningful contexts in order to develop proficiency. Competency-based credit testing, I believe, can be a catalyst for change in language learners and language teachers.
Molly: In your “Path 2 Proficiency” blog post, you state: “I can see the difference between students who are confident of their language skills and those who doubt themselves.” What kinds of differences do you see? How can competency-based credit programs help with this problem?
Dr. Aoki: Of course, much of our work in world language competency-based credit testing has involved testing (and awarding credits to) heritage language speakers – children who grew up in homes where a language other than English was spoken and either internalized that language or, sadly, sometimes rejected it. Often children reject their home language because of the strong messages they get at school about needing to learn English, or that English is the only language that matters. Sometimes they are reluctant to embrace their home language because they are constantly criticized by the native-speaking adults in their lives who expect them to speak like a child raised and schooled in a country where that language is spoken throughout the community. When we can test them at school and they can show their families the credits they’ve earned because they can speak (and read and write) Amharic or Spanish or Vietnamese or Mongolian, then they understand that this knowledge and skill are something to be valued and nurtured.
The “doubting” is not limited to heritage language learners. Those learning a new “second” language also have doubts about what they can do. We use the same competency-based credit testing for students in middle school who are unsure about what they can do in high school. Did they learn enough language in their middle school class to be likely to succeed at a higher level in high school? We have found that many of our students who had earned one seat-time high school credit for their two years of middle school language classes could actually be better placed in a level 3 or level 4 class in high school because they had learned/acquired a lot more than what the course was designed to teach. That creates tremendous confidence in the language learner.
Molly: Are there any ways IALLT members can help spread this information to their local policymakers?
Dr. Aoki: IALLT members can spread the word that the path to proficiency is really an individual path. Teachers can help facilitate the path, but they do not determine it. The way we approach “standards-based” instruction right now would be like saying that we want all students to weigh 110 pounds by the end of the school year. That would be nearly impossible for a 4’ 10” student, and also unlikely (and unhealthy) for 6’ 1” student. Instead, we should keep a scale handy and provide accurate feedback to students about their weight. No doctor would dream of just looking at a patient and guessing their weight. They always measure that first thing when you come to an appointment. Wouldn’t it be interesting if language teachers also began each year by measuring students’ proficiency first? (And do that with a reliable instrument, not just a multiple-choice test with favorite tricky grammar points.)
Molly: Another aspect you discussed in your keynote is the Global Seal of Biliteracy. Could you tell us a little about how this project came to be and why it is such an important resource for high school students?
Dr. Aoki: There has been amazing work happening across the country to launch State Seals of Biliteracy in dozens of states. (I won’t even quote the number because it’s growing every month.) We did the work in Washington state starting in about 2012, just as soon as we heard about the Seal of Biliteracy in California, which launched in 2011. The legislation for the State Seal in Washington passed in 2014, and districts were able to award the first Seals of Biliteracy to students in June of 2015. As you can see, it takes time to launch a State Seal of Biliteracy program. That’s why in some states that have not yet launched a state Seal, districts or schools have launched their own.
The concept of a State Seal of Biliteracy is great, but it has limitations. In Washington state, only students in public schools (actually, graduating high school seniors) can earn the State Seal of Biliteracy. (This is in part because the state needs to track the data, and non-public schools don’t have to submit data like that to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.) In addition, I can say that we district people supporting the State Seal of Biliteracy hear all the time about students who got out of high school without completing AP or IB language tests or World Language Competency-Based Credit Testing and are in the community college and maybe want to transfer to a four-year university. There’s no way for them to test now to get the world language credits (needed for admission to a four-year university) or to qualify for the State Seal of Biliteracy. And, of course, there are also lots of home-schooled students in our state, as well as students attending independent (private) schools.
That’s where the idea for the Global Seal of Biliteracy came from. How can there be a Seal of Biliteracy that is not tied to just one state (or district) and is available to anyone, in principle, not just public high school students? Linda Egnatz, former ACTFL Teacher of the Year and one of the key leaders in promoting the (State) Seal of Biliteracy in her state, Illinois, and district, worked with David Bong, President of Avant Assessment, to develop the concept and then launch the program in 2018. I’m proud to have contributed to its development and popularization.
Molly: On the Global Seal of Biliteracy’s website, it mentions the need to “close the gap”–could you elaborate on how you see this gap? In your view, what kinds of factors contribute to it–cultural, socio-economic, political, etc.?
Dr. Aoki: There are so many perspectives on this. First of all, a lot of immigrant students who should qualify for the Seal of Biliteracy are not even aware of this opportunity. This is a communications gap that IALLT members and all language advocates could help fill. Another issue affects heritage language students, especially those who were born here but may have learned to speak their mother language at home without ever receiving instruction in reading and writing in that language. Can IALLT members provide technology-based solutions to help students build on their speaking ability in the language to become literate, as well? There are also heritage language programs in the community that need support. Can IALLT members provide professional development for community-based language teachers so they can learn how to teach these students in ways that will work for them and don’t just reflect the way languages were taught in the home country?
The reality is that students at any level and from any background could benefit from “language credentials” that are scaled and backed with independent evidence. The Global Seal of Biliteracy is uniquely filling this gap, providing bilingual students with language credentials useful for academic or work purposes that are not limited to earning a college major or minor in the language. The Global Seal of Biliteracy is a tool for anyone who is multilingual to articulate their language skills.
Molly: Do you hope or plan to expand the Global Seal of Biliteracy program, such as in different states or to different levels (e.g. college)? Are there any potential resources or challenges for expanding this program?
Dr. Aoki: Yes, indeed. Within my state, Washington, my primary focus will be on creating opportunities for community college and university students to earn the Global Seal of Biliteracy. We plan to support that through our volunteer efforts in the WAFLT (Washington Association for Language Teaching) Assessment Services. Several of us who are now retired from our district education positions (or will be soon) plan to do outreach to the colleges and help them understand the testing options and how their students could benefit from access to the Global Seal of Biliteracy. Within university language departments, I want to encourage students to aim for the Working Fluency (Advanced Low) level of the Global Seal. (Among other things, that’s the level of proficiency people need in many states (including Washington) to get endorsed as a world language teacher.) A number of universities (including University of Oregon, Indiana University, Butler University, California State University, and others) already see the value in providing their students with language credentials and are awarding the Global Seal. In fact, I understand that about 25% of the Global Seal certificates are being issued to university students. Finally, I really want to encourage world language teachers themselves to get this credential as a way of “walking the talk.”
The biggest challenge to accomplishing these things will be finding reliable proctored testing sites with technology access, computers set up with multilingual writing systems, and headphones with microphones. Our WAFLT testing team can help proctor or train proctors, but we don’t have our own computer labs. Hopefully, we’ll find colleges willing to collaborate on this.
My focus is on Washington state, but what we learn in our state will be shared nationally, so I expect that many other states will get on board quickly.
Molly: You began working as the World Languages Program Supervisor in 2008, but before that, the position had been unfilled for close to 20 years. In your opinion, what factors helped contribute to this position finally being filled again? Do you have any suggestions for helping to advocate for such a position in other school districts or localities?
Dr. Aoki: That’s a very simple question to answer. The WAFLT (Washington Association for Language Teaching) Advocacy Committee worked tirelessly from 2006-2008 with the Washington State Coalition for International Education to get the position established. To be honest, our world language teachers in the state did not know what we were missing. But after Dr. Shuhan Wang came to Seattle for the International Education Leadership Summit: Expanding Chinese Language in 2006, she told us about NCSSFL (National Council of State Supervisors for Language) and how important it was to have state-level leadership at the national level. A retired German teacher in our state was the one who convinced her legislator to drop a bill to create the position. The Legislature funded it in 2008. In our case, the state educational agency’s work is highly influenced by what the Legislature directs. It was a bit unusual to have the Legislature dictate the creation of this position, but it worked. I would encourage other states that currently lack a state-level World Languages Supervisor to try that approach as well.
Molly: You have spent a large part of your professional life advocating for foreign languages and helping to ensure program funding. Do you have any advice for educators who are facing budget cuts in their programs? Are there any advocating strategies you have found particularly helpful?
Dr. Aoki: I am not one who has mastered the funding question for languages, I’m afraid. But what I’ve learned, in general, about funding for education is that families and educators need to work together to advocate with policy/decision-makers (mainly, the state legislature, and to some extent, the federal government, such as the US Department of Education).
It is even more impactful if students themselves will advocate. Our immigrant students who advocated for the State Seal of Biliteracy in Washington were the “tipping point,” I would say, for the Legislature to approve the bill. However, there was minimal funding associated with it. We need students to go down to our state capitol and demand that they have the opportunity to learn languages in school. Maybe some bright young Swedish student will take up the cause and create a movement… (And do I think climate change is related to language learning? – Yes! When we don’t speak each other’s languages, it is easy for us to ignore the global changes that impact others outside our country or language community. We have to build empathy and deep compassion in order to muster the will to tackle climate change and other global issues.)
Molly: You became involved with languages in high schools partly through your work with the PTA (Parent/Teacher Association). Do you have any advice for parents who want their children to have more access to foreign language instruction in secondary schools?
Dr. Aoki: First, parents need to make sure that they are advocating for equitable access to language instruction in secondary schools. (Of course, I’d really prefer it if there was much more access to Dual Language Immersion programs at the elementary level too.) It is not enough to provide Advanced Placement (AP) level language courses if the students that are getting to take those courses don’t match the demographics of the students in the district. Parents need to understand what the barriers are. Is it the counselors? Are they not encouraging (or allowing?) students from certain demographics to enroll in language programs? Is it the students themselves? Are they discouraging each other from enrolling in a class that is perceived to be mainly for “white” students? How can you change the narrative?
Second, parents must not get brought down by the scarcity argument. (“If we offer languages, we’ll have to cut music, or arts, or PE.”) Language can be part of all content areas, but it does require creativity. I personally strongly support after school (and summer) language programs, especially to demonstrate proof of interest. Seattle Schools, for example, had not been offering Chinese language programs in the schools until a non-profit, One World Now!, had demonstrated that dozens of students were interested enough in studying Chinese to enroll in classes after school. Eventually, the schools brought the language program into the school day. (Of course, it doesn’t always happen immediately; we are still waiting for Arabic, Korean, and Russian, other languages offered by One World Now!, to move into the school day too.)
Molly: Are there any ways IALLT members can help local high schools advocate for more inclusive foreign language requirement policies? Or any ways IALLT members can use the Global Seal of Biliteracy program as a model to advocate for inclusive language policies at the university level?
Dr. Aoki: Yes, I do believe that the Global Seal of Biliteracy offers a clear, understandable pathway for advocating for languages to be maintained and to be initiated (i.e. learned for the first time, even in a school or college setting). All students need to become aware of this language credential opportunity, even those who are not language major/minors but may have language skills. In addition, the multi-tiered award system (both Functional Fluency and Working Fluency) has proven itself at the high school level to motivate learners to “level up” and has accelerated language acquisition through student ownership of their pathway toward proficiency and their recognition that a credential is more beneficial than a transcript that just reports grades and seat-time credits.
If we believe that learning a language (even one’s “native” or home language/mother-tongue) is a lifelong pursuit, then it does not make sense to divide up the world into K-12 vs. college, and then to completely ignore out-of-school learning experiences to boot. To be honest, this is really how ALL education (learning) should be thought of, so let’s have languages lead the way!
Molly: Are you working on any interesting new projects? Is there anything else you would like to tell us about? Thank you!
Dr. Aoki: Some of the new projects are really reincarnations of past projects. I have devoted the past 20 years to promoting languages taught in our schools, such as Spanish, French, Japanese, Latin (to some extent), and Mandarin Chinese – the newest “kid on the block.” But I myself spent most of my early life learning, acquiring, and teaching languages of Eastern Europe, including Macedonian, Russian, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian/Montenegrin, Bulgarian, and Romanian. I am eager to give more attention to those languages now in the next phase of my life. In particular, last fall we launched SEETAW (Slavic East European Teachers Association of Washington) to help bring together teachers of these languages from the community, as well as Slavic Dept. graduate students and instructors, and anyone else interested. My aim is to get Russian back in the schools in Washington within the next few years.
I also plan to continue to support testing of “super” less commonly taught/tested languages through WAFLT (Washington Association for Language Teaching) Custom Testing. We have launched WAFLT Assessment Services as a contact point for schools and districts in our state. (We will also do our best to provide guidance to other states on how we do this.)
On a more personal note, I am the president of LifeSPAN, a non-profit devoted to supporting families and community to ensure a “good life” for their loved ones with a disability after the parents are no longer available. We do this by establishing and maintaining personal support networks facilitated by LifeSPAN professional facilitators. This non-profit was founded by a group of visionary parents and siblings almost 20 years ago. My mom was one of them, and my sister, Kari, was the first beneficiary of a LifeSPAN network. Now that my mom is 92 and has dementia, and I am my sister’s guardian, I look forward to having more time to devote to this important work.
It was a pleasure to be part of this interview. Feel free to contact me at michele @anciauxinternational.com