How do you write curriculum if you don’t know the language?

When I tell someone I write language curriculum, their first question usually is, “How many languages do you speak?” When I tell them that, no, I don’t speak Pashto, Dari, Italian, Swahili, Russian, or any of the other languages I have worked on, they inevitably ask, “How do you write a curriculum if you don’t know the language?”

My favorite answer is, “Google translate.”

But seriously, in order to answer this question, I need to talk a little bit about the roles of members of a curriculum development team.

A crucial team member is the curriculum developer, who is a native speaker of the language being taught. They are the language experts who decide which grammar and vocabulary to include so learners can accomplish their objectives. They create the language that students will listen to, read, and practice, and their job is to make sure that it is accurate and relevant to student needs.

It helps if developers are also experienced language teachers. That way, they better understand what students learning their language will need—what skills they will struggle with, what concepts will be difficult to understand, etc.—and they can best address these issues in the curriculum.

It’s easy to understand the role of the native speakers. But what about the team members who, like me, don’t speak the language? Usually, the team’s English speaker has a background in linguistics, second language acquisition, or teaching English as a second language. This team member is responsible for making sure the teaching methods used in the curriculum are effective. They make sure that the students are getting the right amount of vocabulary and grammar and the right kinds of activities so they can build their language skills and meet the curriculum’s objectives.

The English speaker’s perspective is helpful to have on the team, because they often identify things that could be trouble spots for the students. If a grammar explanation that the curriculum developer wrote confuses an English speaker who studied linguistics, that explanation will likely be confusing for a student new to language learning. So the English speaker and the curriculum developer work together to clarify grammar explanations, vocabulary translations, and other issues, so that the final product is easy for students to use and understand.