A Conversation with Dr. Russell Simonsen

Marianela Serrano

Marianela Serrano, OFLA Professional Development Chair
Spanish Teacher, Hathaway Brown School

This past April, I had the wonderful pleasure of speaking to Dr. Russell Simonsen, a professor at Miami University.  Dr. Simonsen holds a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He is also a Certified Healthcare Interpreter (Spanish-English), and a member of the OFLA Professional Development Committee. His work focuses on theoretical linguistics and his main area of expertise is second language acquisition.  Dr. Simonsen looks at how people learn Spanish as a second language and how this knowledge informs teaching pedagogy.

In our conversation, I asked him about his current work and the future of second language teaching and learning. Here are his insights:

Q: Tell us about your current research focus.

Dr. Simonsen: Well, I have a few different projects that I’m working on.

One project that is relevant to teaching, and that I think would be very interesting to people, is related to the language learners’ career readiness. I published an article just last year about this. 

The article is called “How to maximize language learners’ career readiness.”  In other words, what are the learners going to do with Spanish in the workforce?  What are employers looking for when it comes to the  Spanish language in the workplace? 

Then relatedly I have another project that I’m working on. I am writing a chapter in a book that is going to be about the state of language education programs. Basically, it is about how to make world language departments thrive. For instance, what do high school students want to do with the language? What value do they find in the language themselves? What are reasons for continuing on in college with a second language education? I am looking at a number of high school students’ motivations; what they say about what value they get from the language and I will base my writing on that. In order for college programs to thrive, we need to know what high school students want out of it.

I have collected the data looking at virtual exchanges for another project that is related to acquisition and teaching. This research looks at different programs like Boomalang and TalkAbroad, where students can connect with native speakers. The students pay a fee to have 15 minute conversations.  My colleague and I are going to look at these conversations in order to find out what exactly is going on in these interactions. We want to see what kind of learning is happening during these conversations. What is the interaction like and how does it develop? 

Q: What do you see the future of world language education becoming?

Dr. Simonsen:  Based on the trends that I have seen, I think students are going to be looking at languages more in terms of their market value. 

The number of language students across the country has been going down. The MLA (Modern Language Association) report has clearly shown that. Now students go into languages for different reasons. We are always going to have students who want to study language just because they think it is cool, they find language and culture interesting, and they want to travel.  However, I think we don’t necessarily reach other groups of students because they do not see the value in it.  Other students may want to go into healthcare and business, and they do not see the strong link of language in these fields or they look at it as very peripheral. They think “Maybe I’ll take a couple classes or get a minor in a second language”, but they don’t always prioritize learning a second language.

I think moving forward, we will be looking at what language learners want out of it and then provide specialized language content for the students’ purposes.  There is a whole field called Language for Specific Purposes that encompasses Spanish for business, Spanish for healthcare, and so on. This field spotlights students’ interest a little bit more to find what they want to get out of it, instead of using a general approach that says everyone is going to learn about family, everyone is going to learn about the kitchen and household items.

I also think just a more specialized and focused content approach will make it easier to talk to parents and administrators about the value of language teaching.

Now, this specialized content is not currently prevalent in the K-12 level.  It is more prevalent at the university level. If it were to move into the high school and even middle school curricula, it may be more appropriate at the more advanced levels.  In particular when students are getting to be juniors and seniors and when they’re starting to think about college and careers.

The idea is to give the students different options other than the traditional kind of language class that is focused on the language itself or culture generally. Even in the upper-level classes, like AP Spanish, some of them are very focused on literature and culture, and that is generally the only option. Providing a content-specific class option may help connect the students’ interest in the workforce and add value to the learning of a second language. 

Q: In your opinion, what are the main job sectors that are seeking bilingual individuals?

Dr. Simonsen: In my article “How to maximize language learner’s career readiness,” I show that the two main job sectors that people need or are looking for Spanish speakers are healthcare and business. They are looking for bilingual people in a variety of positions. For example, Bank of America was specifically looking for sales agents and financial managers that could speak Spanish and English. In terms of demand, more than one-third of Bank of America’s job postings were for bilinguals nationwide in 2015. During the same period, H&R Block was looking for tax preparers, receptionists, and information clerks that could speak Spanish. Then Humana, one of the largest employers of healthcare, posted one-fourth of their online posts targeting bilinguals. When it came to registered nurses, the percentage of job postings for bilingual people was as high as 40%.

Q: Where is innovation occurring in the World Language Teaching field?

Dr. Simonsen: I think the opportunity to have some kind of connection with the second language outside of the classroom is where we will see innovation.  Technologies like virtual reality may work, but they may not be for everyone. Products like Boomalang and other technologies may be here to stay. These provide options for students to connect to the outside world and use the language, not just hear about it or look at it, but actually converse with native speakers.  Even students in high school and middle school could communicate with people in different ways through technology. I think this is going to be a huge way to move forward with innovation in world language education.

On the other hand, our field of teaching a second language is a little bit different from others. Hence our innovation in education sometimes manifests in the moving, rebranding and repackaging things that have been out there for a really long time. The reason that I think things can only change so much in second language education is that we have already split the atom so to speak. There is not going to be a point in language acquisition, or language teaching, where people will say “we finally figured out the answer”, because we have pretty much done that. We know how people learn languages. Research since the seventies shows that we basically learn a second language through input and communication.  Students need to be exposed to lots of communicatively embedded input in order to acquire language, and they will develop their production as they are able. Those are the key factors in second language acquisition, and those are never going to change, regardless of any new discovery, research or finding. 

We might find out little bits and pieces that we do not know, but by and large, we already figured out the big pieces of the puzzle. So I would say that the main types of innovation would be changing curriculum as I talked about to readjust it with students’ interests and maybe some of their long-term goals.  And perhaps technology will intersect more. In fact, those two things may intersect in the future more than I am imagining it now.

Again focusing on student interest and the job market will be important. For instance, in my class, out of 19 students I have at least 6 or 7 that likely are pre-med. They are taking Spanish as a minor usually to be able to say they have some kind of proficiency for the job market, for when they become a medical professional. Also, one of the most up-and-coming careers that has the most potential for growth is interpreters and translators and we are going to need more of them. Just look at the news. We are probably gonna break all records for immigration into our country. In March of 2022, we saw the most immigration from Central America and Mexico than we have ever seen since we’ve recorded this data. We are going to have a growing Hispanic population for a long time. We are going to need more immigration lawyers, for example. These lawyers will pretty much have to be bilingual to do their job well. They could also get an interpreter, but if the lawyer can speak with her/his clients directly it would be a huge asset.

Many thanks to Dr. Russell Siminsen for his time and willingness to answer my many questions.

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