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.