Literature Analysis Is Not the End of Language Study

The recent Report from the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages on the state of foreign language education in the US begins like this, (emphasis mine):

The United States’ inability to communicate with or comprehend other parts of the world became a prominent subject for journalists, as language failures of all kinds plagued the United States’ military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and its efforts to suppress terrorism. Initiatives in critical languages began multiplying in educational institutions all over the United States… Legislative proposals to address the deficit in language and international expertise began appearing in Congress.

Not surprisingly, “the need to understand other cultures and languages” was identified by Daniel Yankelovich as one of five imperative needs to which higher education must respond in the next ten years if it is to remain relevant. “Our whole culture,” Yankelovich says, “must become less ethnocentric, less patronizing, less ignorant of others, less Manichaean in judging other cultures, and more at home with the rest of the world.Higher education can do a lot to meet that important challenge.” In May 2005 Senator Daniel Akaka made a similar point: “Americans need to be open to the world; we need to be able to see the world through the eyes of others if we are going to understand how to resolve the complex problems we face.” In the current geopolitical moment, these statements are no longer clichés.

Right on! Absolutely! I’ve been saying that for years, as, I suspect, have most of the other people who will ever see this report. However, more than simply preaching to the choir, the report had some very interesting things to say about how current foreign language programs are failing to produce students who accomplish these goals. Part of the problem, of course, is that not enough students actually learn foreign languages, but in the excerpt below, the MLA report makes a point about why programs may be both failing to attract students, and failing to turn the students they do have into truly competent cross-cultural language users; namely, these programs focus too much on literature study:

The standard configuration of university foreign language curricula, in which a two- or three-year language sequence feeds into a set of core courses primarily focused on canonical literature, also represents a narrow model. This configuration defines both the curriculum and the governance structure of language departments and creates a division between the language curriculum and the literature curriculum and between tenure-track literature professors and language instructors in non-tenure-track positions. At doctorate-granting institutions, cooperation or even exchange between the two groups is usually minimal or nonexistent. Foreign language instructors often work entirely outside departmental power structures and have little or no say in the educational mission of their department, even in areas where they have particular expertise. Although we focus here on conditions that prevail in foreign language and literature programs, we also note that the two-tiered system exists elsewhere in the humanities–in English programs, for example, where composition and literary studies are frequently dissociated in parallel structural ways.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the frustration this rigid and hierarchical model evokes among language specialists who work under its conditions. Their antagonism is not toward the study of literature–far from it–but toward the organization of literary study in a way that monopolizes the upper-division curriculum, devalues the early years of language learning, and impedes the development of a unified language-and-content curriculum across the four-year college or university sequence. This two-track model endows one set of language professionals not only with autonomy in designing their curricula but also with the power to set the goals that the other set of professionals must pursue. In this model, humanists do research while language specialists provide technical support and basic training. The more autonomous group–the literature faculty–may find it difficult to see the advantages of sharing some of its decision-making power over the curriculum as a whole. We hope to convince this group that it is in our common interest to devise new models.

I found this quite interesting. I was a language major in undergraduate school, and I admit that my program did involve a lot of literary analysis. However, I’m not totally inclined to think that is a bad thing, because I am a big proponent of content-based language classes, which serve to focus the students more on actually using the language to say something meaningful about the content they have learned, rather than simply focusing on the basic mechanics of the language. Literature- and film-based classes are an easy way to come up with focused content areas, (ie, Race and Gender in Spanish Film, Spain in the post-Franco Era, etc.,) but there is no real reason that the classes need to be literature based. Any subject with enough supporting text or media in the target language to provide practice would work: history, cultural anthropology, science, tourism… Any subject can be taught in a sheltered, language-study-focused way. To this day, there are words for film techniques and historical linguistic phonological changes that I only know in Spanish.

This is why I found it so dissatisfying to be one of those low-level “language technician” teachers while doing my graduate work. I was teaching ESL to foreign students, which my department wanted to insist was a different thing from teaching a foreign language to American students, but that’s a bunch of bull, and I knew it. If anything, we should have been providing these study abroad students with a more unified and challenging curriculum, since they had already passed their home university’s requirements to study abroad. Instead, we taught in a fractured, “skills-based” program, in which not only was there no continuity between classes and teachers, but there was no coordination between the classes focused on reading/writing vs. listening/speaking for the same students. We were not consulting with the other university professors about what kind of skills these students would need if they were going to pass into mainstream English-only university classes, and as a result, the ESL classes were largely boring, elementary, and pointless for many of our students, because we were encouraged to concentrate on the mechanics of language as much as possible, without relating those skills to any kind of real, and possibly interesting, academic situations.

I’m happy to say that that kind of fractured skills-based teaching seems relatively rare in most foreign language programs in the US, but I am still all for the introduction of more content in lower level foreign language classes, not to mention more varied content in the higher level classes. Very few people who pursue a foreign language major in undergraduate school are going to go out into the world to analyze literature in that language. If they are so lucky as to be hired into a job that makes use of their foreign language skills, they are going to be expected to be able to converse with clients and colleagues about whatever business they’re in, and have some kind of decent understanding of the cultural underpinnings of the language as well. (The report says more about this, as well, which I intend to address in another post.)

To my mind, the report’s points about fractured lower- vs. upper-level teaching and a too-narrow focus on literature study feed into the same end result: foreign language study needs to be more interdisciplinary and more coordinated to produce students who 1) truly love using the target language, 2) find it relevant to their everyday lives, and 3) will continue to use it beyond their time in college. In turn, I would also hope that these more competent foreign language speakers would encourage more companies and businesses in the US to actually make use of their employees’ language skills before they atrophy, as is usually the case now.

It is encouraging that people in the US are beginning to recognize the importance of language learning; now let’s see them start appreciating those of us who pursue those skills, both teachers and students.

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7 Responses to Literature Analysis Is Not the End of Language Study

  1. […] Translingual Competence In my last post, I talked about the Modern Language Association’s finding that language study programs in the […]

  2. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Three quick comments:

    1) as a graduate of a US program in a critical language, I can tell you “translingual competence” is often far more about low-brow culture than it is about high-brow culture. American cultural competence, for example, would include The Sound of Music and musical theater in general, The Wizard of Oz, Charlie Chaplin and Oprah Winfrey as much as basic Biblical knowledge and the Shakespeare canon. That means that many things essential to cultural literacy are not considered ‘academic” enough to be included at the university level.

    2) American programs are ALL OVER THE BOARD in terms of how they prepare their students and what they will know at certain levels. Anyone participating in a study-abroad program will understand this from the group sorting process occurring at the beginning of your stay. The academic organizations for teachers at the high-school and college levels must become more proactive in creating universal standards and promoting solid curricula and textbooks, giving more solidity to this very fluid area. Europeans, who are far more concerned with producing fully developed foreign language skills, promote a system of universal competencies nearly identical to the ILR ratings used by the US State Dept. among others, while simultaneously developing a standardized and recognized testing system to rate non-native speakers in four essential skill areas.

    3) American TAs and professors, unless they are native speakers, often only reach the 2+ or low-3 level themselves through their (mostly literature) studies (reaching, say, level 4 takes serious dedication or decades of activity in the field) — so how are they supposed to raise the level of their students any higher?

  3. Dana says:

    Re: Cultural competence, that’s part of the point. In the translingual competence post, part of the MLA quote of stated goals is, “Students are educated to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language. They are also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture.”

    In the various education classes I took at our dear alma mater, there was a lot to be said about teaching all students in US schools what they would need to know to be culturally literate. Those discussions tended to degenerate into discussions about ethnic groups and why should everyone need to conform to the cultural literacy standards of upper class whites, etc, etc. But when you teach ESL, you realize how much cultural background there is behind even the “low-brow” bits of culture. And if your students don’t get the cultural references behind those low-brow TV shows, movies, what have you, then you have to teach them, and then it becomes a lesson. Anything from the target language and culture can be taught in a way to encourage students “to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture.” The only reason things that are essential parts of our cultural heritage are not considered “academic enough” for class is because we’ve gotten locked into the literature-centered model.

    I’ve taught classes using an episode of The Donna Reed Show in preparation for showing Pleasantville, with a discussion after the first one about what “American” values Donna Reed’s show was demonstrating from that time period, and the class assignment for the movie being that the students look for parody elements. This then led into an examination of utopia vs. dystopia, which was highly academic. Teachers just need to be willing to think that anything at all is fair game for being turned into a lesson in cultural literacy.

    I really think one of the best places to look for genuinely interesting cultural bits to be turned into lessons is one’s childhood, esp. if the teacher is a native speaker. I wrote an entire semester’s curriculum (not that I ever got to use it) on analyzing Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries as transmission points of mainstream American cultural values.

  4. TheGnat says:

    My experience with college level language has so far only been with Japanese, and at both the American colleges I studied it at, it wasn’t literature focused nor was there a lack of intergration within the program. This may be because in general Japanese is taught by native speakers, and the programs are run by native speakers. In my language classes themselves, there has been a lot of time spent on office behavior and speech, popular television shows, as well as the literary background of Japan (fortunately, Japan doesn’t distinguish high- and low-brow material nearly as much). And the non-language classes have run the full gamut of topics (anthropology, history, literature, film, television). Professors of film and literature will frequently engage in direct translation in classes that have students who have never studied the language, for the benefit of those who have and can get something really valuable out of it.
    The other thing is, most of the other students have wanted to learn Japanese as a career move, or to better enjoy Japanese popular culture. I personally haven’t met anyone learning it for other reasons.

    So I feel like this problem may be primarily with European languages, where it *is* the norm to have non-native speakers as the professors, and the language seen as a hobby or fulfilling a credit requirement. I could be wrong. I’ll find out if I am soon too, as I’m about to start both Chinese and Korean. However again, the professors are all native speakers, as are the department heads…

  5. Dana says:

    In some ways, I suspect the whole area of “less commonly taught languages” are benefiting from the exoticism that surrounds them in the minds of most Westerners. Their departments are younger, and therefore less entrenched in one particular teaching method, and their associated cultures are thought of as more “foreign” than plain old Indo-European ones. The teachers are more aware of the students’ lack of familiarity with the culture, and are more willing to approach the cultural aspects as academic material as well.

    In some Indo-European language departments, you’ll find the lack of cultural teaching because it’s assumed that the students have the knowledge already or will pick it up. However, there’s also sometimes the problem, especially with languages that have been widely spread through colonialism, of deciding which cultural knowledge to teach. I had one Spanish class in high school that dealt with this by using each Spanish speaking country as the subject of a new set of lessons, giving us kind of a pan-Hispanic overview, but we didn’t really learn much. But that’s a problem of having too much choice in teaching material, not too little.

    If universities start turning out non-native-speaker language majors, who have a good grounding in transcultural fluency and extensive experience living abroad, the gap between classes taught by native speakers and those by non-native-speakers will close.

  6. Jennie says:

    Personally, I loved having non-native speakers at the lower levels of language development– they understood the weird tricks that Westerners had to learn for pronunciation, etc, because they had to learn them too at one point.

    I’ve noticed with Chinese curriculums at larger universities, there is a much broader spectrum of courses– Chinese in business, Chinese in film etc. But I think part of that is people are like “Wow! We need a Chinese department because they’re breaking into the economic scene!” I think Dana has a point about department age and flexibility…

  7. Dana says:

    Yeah, I’ve made that observation too. At the lower levels, it is good to have non-native speakers. And there does have to be some greater focus on mechanics over culture at the lowest levels, because if you don’t have any words or grammar, how can you talk about anything? But those lower level classes can still work in bits of culture to maintain student interest. At that level, there is perhaps an argument for more culture-in-translation, to get cultural literacy skills started and give students a goal of what they will one day be able to understand and talk about.

    (I’m not saying that programs don’t already do this. I’m just trying to say that having a non-native speaker as the instructor doesn’t have to preclude exploring culture in addition to language. I assure you, those “language technician” teachers get just as bored concentrating on only structure as the students do, and they have just as little say in the curriculum currently. Which is why I don’t teach anymore…)

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