Language in Bloom

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The Role of Empathy in Language Learning

It’s not a component of the Common Core. The word does not appear in the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) World Readiness Standards. It’s a word, and a concept, that seems to be left off almost every syllabus—at least the ones that I’ve encountered. Yet I would argue that

If the purpose of educating our youth is to develop the skills needed to succeed in and contribute to society, I see empathy as being a crucial method of not only acquiring some of the skills needed in today’s workplace and culture, and it should also be a learning objective in itself.

Some might argue that empathy can’t be taught; however, new research suggests that it actually can be taught, even to narcissists.  If this possibility exists, why are we not emphasizing the importance of such a skill and developing effective ways of incorporating it into our instructional frameworks? The Common Core’s Anchor Standards purport to provide a framework to prepare students for today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace, but how are students supposed to succeed if achievement is all that’s valued, and the ability to connect with others is not even named as a priority? It’s not a stretch to connect success in sales/management/human resources/etc. with the ability to empathize with customers, employees, and colleagues.

In ACTFL’s World Readiness Standards’ five C’s of Learning Languages (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, Communities) the ability to empathize is implied, but I see the omission of empathy as an explicit strategy for communication, understanding cultures, making connections, drawing thoughtful comparisons, and participating in communities, a real missed opportunity. What better subject to offer lessons in the power of empathy than in the foreign language classroom?

These are some initial thoughts that came to me after reading several articles about empathy, whether it can be taught, and its value in society. I’ll be exploring this topic more, and including example methods of incorporating empathy as a learning strategy and objective into various instructional contexts.

For further reading about empathy in education and in the workplace, please visit the following links:


Language teachers: how are you incorporating empathy into your classrooms, and with what kind of results?

Written by

Tammy Bjelland
Language lover, teacher & coach.

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