Encouraging Translingual Competence

In my last post, I talked about the Modern Language Association’s finding that language study programs in the US, particularly in universities, focus too much on literature and do not produce students with necessarily useful abilities, or a great interest in using their language skills. I agree with the MLA’s idea that programs need to have broader foci, with a better end goal of producing students who not only have a good grasp of vocabulary and grammar, but also good translingual competence, as described in the report (emphasis mine):

The Goal: Translingual and Transcultural Competence

The language major should be structured to produce a specific outcome: educated speakers who have deep translingual and transcultural competence. Advanced language training often seeks to replicate the competence of an educated native speaker, a goal that postadolescent learners rarely reach. The idea of translingual and transcultural competence, in contrast, places value on the ability to operate between languages. 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. They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans–that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others. They also learn to relate to fellow members of their own society who speak languages other than English.

This kind of foreign language education systematically teaches differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview as expressed in American English and in the target language. Literature, film, and other media are used to challenge students’ imaginations and to help them consider alternative ways of seeing, feeling, and understanding things. In the course of acquiring functional language abilities, students are taught critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception. They acquire a basic knowledge of the history, geography, culture, and literature of the society or societies whose language they are learning; the ability to understand and interpret its radio, television, and print media; and the capacity to do research in the language using parameters specific to the target culture.

 This makes me even more glad that my own Spanish major was accentuated by a concentration (interdisciplinary minor) in Latin American Studies. Even though I ended up with that concentration more by accident than design (my semester abroad screwed up my ability to take the courses I needed for the Linguistics concentration), I liked the way the two programs meshed so well. I often found the course work from the two tracks overlapping, and it makes me wonder what students who only did a Spanish major with no LAS work ended up missing. Our Spanish classes did end up having a lot of historical and cultural components, being highly academic at the upper levels, but the LAS classes made it all seem even more relevant.

To accomplish the MLA’s goals, the classes in such interdisciplinary concentrations are going to have to become integral parts of the language major. I don’t think there are many people who deny that to be a competent communicator in a foreign language, one must also have a great deal of background cultural knowledge as well. Even statements expressed in the same language, but spoken by speakers from different cultural backgrounds (American vs. British vs. Australian English, for example) can take on very different meanings. The impact of social, cultural, and historical background goes far beyond simply misunderstanding colloquialisms.

And of course, as noted, as students become more aware of cultural differences and learn to think of themselves as foreign to others, there is greater understanding of their own culture in the context of the greater whole. Much like many students who only learn the grammatical structures of English by comparing them with the grammar of their first foreign language, so might we hope that they will come to understand their culture from an outside view as well. It can only help.

The MLA report calls for some ways to encourage better translingual competence, both of which seem obvious, but which still need to be done:

This vision requires departments, in both tenure-track and non-tenure-track searches, to look for instructors who are able to develop and teach broad-based courses aimed at producing the translingual and transcultural competencies described above.

This is going back to the ideas I talked about in the first post, indicating that all teachers in the department, from language lecturers (“technicians”) to full professors (currently predominantly literature-centric), need to work together to broaden the focus of the language major. 

Classroom study and study abroad should be promoted as interdependent necessities: the classroom is an ideal place for structured learning that first sets the stage and later reinforces and builds on learning absorbed in study abroad.

This also seems rather obvious, but I guess there are some places where this doesn’t happen. Even though Grinnell did encourage people to study abroad, I know at least one person who wasn’t able to complete the coursework for a Chinese major, because she spent a semester studying in China. That seems like rather poor planning, doesn’t it?

I hope we’ll be able to see some of the effects of these proposed improvements. I think that if they do happen, they will be very exciting, and of massive benefit to language students in all departments. It’d be nice to see a day when language majors don’t automatically get the question from well-meaning relatives of, “Oh, a [language] major? How nice. So you want to teach [language] in high school?” These are majors that should be seen as highly valuable resources, that can benefit our society as a whole, not to mention worldwide.

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5 Responses to Encouraging Translingual Competence

  1. TheGnat says:

    My personal experience with Grinnell and study abroad is they made it very difficult for me to graduate, and since I was an independent Japanese major, very difficult to have my major at all (i.e. the expectation was that the language was periphrial to my “real” interests, and surely I actually wanted to specialize in Japanese history or something, and would be perfectly happy to receive level 4 instruction from a non-native speaker and write a 50-page primary research paper). Needless to say, I left Grinnell in my senior year, and am completing my major at a college with a stellar Japanese program run by the same Japanese woman for the last 30 years.

    On the other hand, I haven’t ever had the “teaching” reaction about Japanese, except that most people ask if I plan to sign up for JET. Most people wonder what I’m planning to do with such a “useless” language…Unless they aren’t American, in which case they immediately assume I want to work as a translator for business.

  2. Dana says:

    Yeah, well, Grinnell was never the place to be for Japanese. When they finally did get an actual Japanese teacher, I couldn’t take the classes, because they were all cross-scheduled against the Spanish classes I needed for my major. And they had a Spanish prof in charge of the Japanese/Chinese dept for a while, because there were no Asian language profs with tenure yet.

    Given what I’ve heard from another Grinnell grad who is currently doing Japanese grad school, there tend to be two tracks within the higher levels of that course of study: translation or teaching.

  3. TheGnat says:

    Yes, but translation doesn’t have to be in business. ^_-

    On doom and gloom and Grinnell’s Japanese “program”, Grinnell lost it’s Freeman Foundation grant the year I returned, because they’d failed to meet any of the goals or really create a major or department. A professor who was fresh from Japan had been given a tenure-track position even though she hadn’t started teaching yet, and interdiscplinary communication was non-existant. Except Japanese 1-3, there were no permanent Japanese related courses. Last I checked, Japanese is still a side-line to the Chinese department.

  4. Jennie says:

    Now, who couldn’t complete her Chinese major because of studying abroad in China? 🙂

    I passed my bad luck onto my sister, who wanted to minor in Spanish (she did not go to Grinnell) but couldn’t because… wait for it… she spent a semester in Mexico and none of her one-on-one language classes counted. Oh yeah.

    My favorite though, is when people found out I “minored” in Chinese (because who wants to explain what an interdisciplinary concentration is?) they ask “what on earth are you going to do with that?”

    I mean, realistically, impress people at cocktail parties, because I’m not currently doing anything else with it, but dude? I could do ANYTHING with those language skills! If I had kept them up! It’s only one of the most important countries from an economic, political and security standpoint. Idiots.

  5. Dana says:

    Jennie: I wasn’t sure if you’d want me to reveal your true identity. 😉

    Gnat: Yeah, that’s not surprising. Just one Japanese prof wasn’t going to cut it, and it all seemed very disorganized. The Grinnellian who is now pursuing Japanese at the graduate level did all his language learning as self-study after our year in an “independent study” class together with just a textbook and a native speaker student tutor. He also did two years on JET to my one. He’s just way more dedicated than me, clearly.

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