• November 28, 2014

The World Beyond Reach

The World Beyond Reach: Why Languages Are Indispensible 1

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

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close The World Beyond Reach: Why Languages Are Indispensible 1

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

Throughout my career, I have observed that the advanced study of languages is not universally valued in the American educational system. Even so, I was stunned by the announcement this fall that the State University of New York at Albany will eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics (the German program was already reduced), along with theater. When financial exigencies hit, decisions to cut services and programs (and not just academic ones) must be made, but the Albany plan is astoundingly draconian: No European languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters, and 10 tenure-line faculty members will be let go.

Albany seeks to justify the cuts based on the number of students majoring in those fields. But that metric is both misguided and more complicated than it looks. Research by the Modern Language Association shows that language majors are often identified as second concentrations, yet Albany, like a great many colleges and universities, does not report such majors (see the MLA report "Data on Second Majors in Language and Literature, 2001-08" for statistics on the growing number of foreign-language second majors). Quite a few international-relations and business majors declare a second major in a language. Many students also choose to minor in a language, especially after a period of study abroad, and courses can show up as transfer credits.

But more important, the flawed "number of majors" metric distracts us from the real question: What is the purpose of a university (especially one that calls itself a research institution) if not to cultivate the core disciplines of a liberal-arts education? If we value the advanced study of languages as central to the mission of a liberal-arts curriculum, then we must ensure that programs have adequate resources, connect well to other elements of liberal learning, and provide students with the essential experiences to develop translingual and transnational competence. It is absurd to give students access to introductory and intermediate sequences in French (available in virtually all the high schools that send students to Albany) but not to advanced courses on linguistics, literature, culture, and media taught in French. Students who peek into the door of language yet cannot go further are being denied a key component of a university education. In all of this, we are terribly out of sync with the rest of the world.

It doesn't have to be that way. Albany was apparently well on track to achieve some important goals with respect to cross-cultural study. The 2010 Middle States Commission on Higher Education report noted that the "university has given careful attention to developing ... an appreciation for diversity in its many dimensions, including global citizenship. ... The best demonstration of the university's commitment is their choice to add to the SUNY General Education requirement additional rubrics of Global and Cross-Cultural Studies and U.S. Pluralism and Diversity, and to require a second semester of a foreign language." It simply makes no sense to add a second required semester of language while taking away the opportunity to explore all except one of the most commonly taught languages at the minor or major level. Such a move makes the university equivalent to a high school when it comes to a key component of the humanities.

It also makes no sense to deprive other humanities programs of the expertise that specialists in literature, linguistics, and culture can bring. To its credit, the English department at Albany offers a Ph.D. concentration in cultural, transcultural, and global studies that examines the effects of globalization, cross-cultural exchange, class relations, and cultural identity on discourse. The English Ph.D. program also requires students to demonstrate either reading competence in two languages other than English or advanced competence in one language (by taking a graduate course in that language or four years of undergraduate study). How will students take a graduate course conducted in another European language unless they choose to study Spanish? And what will be the effect on faculty members in other liberal-arts disciplines if they lose the benefit of colleagues with scholarly expertise in French, German, Italian, Russian, Latin, and Greek?

The MLA has been assisting its members in making the case for strong language programs, but beyond those efforts, I believe it is the responsibility of the larger academic community to make the case for the advanced study of languages. We must also call out university presidents who, by failing to explain the value of the advanced study of languages and literatures to the public, have been derelict in their duty. Until Americans see learning languages as an indispensable enterprise, we must argue, continuously and vigorously, for the centrality and indisputable relevance of this area of study.

"Educationally and culturally, the University at Albany-SUNY puts 'the World Within Reach,'" the institution proudly proclaims on its Web site. Yet if President George M. Philip's plans go unchallenged, one of the four flagship research universities of New York state will put a good part of the world out of the reach of its students by denying them advanced learning in all European languages except Spanish. In lamenting the cuts, the administration declared the impossible: that the "University at Albany fully values the critically important role the humanities play in the intellectual life of a university community."

Let us hold all universities to this statement of values. I have spent a good deal of time discussing what is going on at one particular institution because I know that state system well, but Albany is hardly alone. Similar actions have been carried out or contemplated at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, the University of Maine at Orono, the University of Nevada at Reno, Florida State University, and the University of Iowa, to name a few. If the academic community does not stand up in support of advanced study and research in languages other than English, then the humanities truly are incomplete—and the mission of higher education is seriously compromised.

Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association. She is on leave from the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, where she is a professor in the department of Romance languages and literatures.

Comments

1. farm_boy - November 07, 2010 at 09:21 am

I agree with the spirit of the article, but we need radical changes and not just a tinkering with a system that never has worked well for language study. We need serious language study in the elementary schools. This would require that we take on the colleges of education and radically transform them.

Waiting until you are 18 to learn a language, and then trying to do it through the gen ed beginning language courses (where the frightened TA's are worried about the student classroom evaluation scores) is a terribly inefficient method.

2. panacea - November 07, 2010 at 09:22 am

We really don't get the importance of other languages in this country. Amerians are shielded from other cultures, and get this attitude that English is the language of the world.

Consider the overt hostility to non-English speakers. "You'd better learn English if you want to live in this country!"

The mix of languages in Europe makes being bilingual non-starter, people don't think twice about it.

No so here. And since we don't value it, it makes "sense" to put language programs on the chopping block. Why learn a language you'll never "use?"

3. tolerantly - November 07, 2010 at 10:40 am

It took doing trade work abroad for me to see how sensible most Americans' resistance to foreign-language-learning is. We don't in fact do a great deal of our business in languages other than English; in fact the rest of the world has come around to a surprising degree. In remote parts of non-Anglophone countries, you'll find reasonably fluent English-speakers. It's the contemporary lingua franca and will be for some time, likely until Mandarin takes over.

It remains important for a few elite groups and those doing exim in places where native fluency is an advantage. For the latter, university courses aren't the place to get schooled up. But for the former, mostly diplomats, translators, artists, scientists, and scholars...well, university courses can be very helpful, but these are also people who are on the whole excellent at teaching themselves and arranging immersion/cultural sessions when necessary. In the end, most of these people will need immersion, and will do most of their learning that way. I would think that you could substitute immersion/travel and autonomous-learning grants and get much of the work done that way.

As for actual scholarship in the languages...frankly, I'm guessing that no, we don't need to support as many scholars as we do. But there I'm really speaking in ignorance. What is it that foreign-language scholars do that isn't done better by native speakers in their own countries?

As for the collegial argument...well, I think the Internet's put paid to that. If you have a question and you're going to bother a colleague with it, it's just as easy to bother a colleague in France as it is to bother one in the French dept. Maybe easier.

4. guest_231 - November 07, 2010 at 04:01 pm

"No languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters"

Might want to check your facts:

A EAC 202 Intermediate Chinese II (5)
A EAC 203 Elementary Chinese for Heritage Learners (5)
A EAC 301Y Advanced Chinese I (3)
A EAC 302Y Advanced Chinese II (3)
A EAC 310 Classical Chinese I (3)
A EAC 311 Classical Chinese II (3)

A EAJ 201 Intermediate Japanese I (5)
A EAJ 202 Intermediate Japanese II (5)
A EAJ 301Y Advanced Japanese I (3)
A EAJ 302Y Advanced Japanese II (3)

A EAK 201 Intermediate Korean I (5)
A EAK 202 Intermediate Korean II (5)
A EAK 301 Advanced Korean I (3)
A EAK 302 Advanced Korean II (3)

A ARA 202 Intermediate Arabic II (4)
A ARA 301 Advanced Arabic I (3)
A ARA 302 Advanced Arabic II (3)

A DCH 201 Intermediate Dutch I(3)
A DCH 202 Intermediate Dutch II (3)

A POR 201 Intermediate Portuguese (4)

A GER 201 Intermediate German I (4)
A GER 202 Intermediate German II (4)


5. rosemaryfeal - November 07, 2010 at 05:25 pm

Not one of those courses listed goes beyond the language acquisition stage; they are therefore "early," in preparation for courses like this, which are taught IN ENGLISH at Albany:

A EAJ 210 Survey of Traditional Japanese Literature (3)
This course presents a survey of the major works of traditional Japanese literature from the 9th to the 19th century, including the Tosa Journal, the Pillow Book, and Essays in Idleness. The course is conducted solely in English; knowledge of Japanese is not required.

6. rosemaryfeal - November 07, 2010 at 05:29 pm

That is, there are no literature, history, or culture courses like "Traditional Japanese Literature" taught in the language-- and with a knowledge of the language required. So the language acquisition level courses are not followed with the kind of advanced disciplinary learning that college students should have, especially in the most commonly taught languages they've already studied in high school.

7. ewrobins - November 07, 2010 at 06:17 pm

"But there I'm really speaking in ignorance. What is it that foreign-language scholars do that isn't done better by native speakers in their own countries?" - tolerantly

I don't know if we necessarily "do" anything better, or if they "do", however I think you miss the point entirely. If we all kept to ourselves and didn't branch out because we didn't think we had anything to bring to the table, or were too afraid that we couldn't, we'd all sit in isolation from everyone else. As a graduate student of French (American born-n-bred), I believe that what we do isn't a fragmented study in whatever our area of specialty is, but that rather, we all collaborate together and our linguistic differences allow us to each conceptualize and present ideas the other may not have thought about. We exchange information and ideas, and it doesn't have to be about who can or does do it better.

But a more pragmatic answer to your question can be summed up in the following: we care. We care enough to spend the time, to take the time to learn and dive into things that native speakers may not care about, or may not have access to (whether that be because of education, finances, whatever else is going on in their lives). Admittedly, I'm sure there are many foreign scholars who can talk about American literature and culture far better than we could.

8. guest_231 - November 07, 2010 at 06:18 pm

Well, then you should back and edit your piece and state what you meant, because "No languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters" certainly implies something different to readers.

9. ewrobins - November 07, 2010 at 06:27 pm

I understood what the author meant by the "early semesters" phrase. In contrast, I don't understand the confusion surrounding it...

10. nebo113 - November 07, 2010 at 06:28 pm

Boren Scholarships: "We focus on geographic areas, languages, and fields of study that are critical to U.S. national security, broadly defined, and underrepresented in study abroad."

My kidlet, a rising college junior, was granted a large scholarship to study Russian in Russia.

11. eperramond - November 08, 2010 at 09:29 am

That's right, nebo113, and as a past recipient of such a grant, it's yet another sign that we are outsourcing instruction to a) community colleges and b) the security state (in your kid's case). If we only learn because of "national security," what a paranoid nation we will have become. I hope your child can make the best of it and learn Russian (and about Russia) on its own terms.

12. impossible_exchange - November 08, 2010 at 09:48 am

You know the thing about cutting languages and classics department, they are very cheap when compared to Engineering and the sciences. In fact, like many humanities departments, these disciplines probably make money for the university.
They are NOT being shuttered for budgetary concerns, those who claim this might believe the lie but it simply is not so.
These departments are part of an attack on an older form of Intelligence. These programs mark a space outside of the ideologies that have overrun the greatest minds of the day.
These are not budgetary battles but wars of ideology.
Like our politics, such warfare transcends the particular instance of conflict and becomes the logic behind every rationale.

13. aldus - November 08, 2010 at 01:17 pm

I note that the languages that would remain after the proposed retrenchments--Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Arabic--are the most in demand in the contemporary business or national security context. They will surely help students navigate our modern world. But can they anticipate what will be important in the future? This was already our first mistake--our inability to think boradly is at the root of the current urgency to make up decivient preparation in these critical languages.... languages, mind you, that were laughingly considered useless or rare not so long ago!

14. aldus - November 08, 2010 at 01:20 pm

Identifying languages that are utilitarian in the short term can provide a satisfactory way to determine which languages to aggressively foster to meet contemporary global challenges, however, it cannot provide a sound criterion for selecting programs to retrench. We must plan too for the long term and respect alternate reasons for matering a language and its culture. How can we study WWII with no German, no Italian, no French? How to study Shakespeare without the knowledge that the Bard himself adapted stories from novellas in Italian and French? How to study Thomas Jefferson's political thought on the separation of powers wihtout the French copy of Montesquieu's Esprit des lois that he annotated in his own hand? European languages still retain great relevance, despite the pressures of modern commerce and security

15. aldus - November 08, 2010 at 01:23 pm

The decoupling of literature and culture from the language offerins is a dangerous thing indeed, for no machanical mastery can display the critical thinking skills, cultural fluency and finesse necessary to close the businesss deal, to treat the medical patient, or to negotiate the bilateral treaty. I find it disturbing from a programmatic perspective that the Asian languages offered at SUNY Albany must combine with other credits in an area studies arrangement to cobble together some semblance of a major... These examples of two years of language offerings (don't be fooled by the word 'advanced', ha ha) simply do not provide the academic content necessary for a univesity degree. The Berlitzification of language offerings is inexcusable in a Research I institution.

16. frenchincalifornia - November 08, 2010 at 04:02 pm

As an undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo, I majored in French and Spanish, but also took four years of Chinese, including a semester spent in Beijing, a semester of Arabic, and the second semester of German. When I graduated with the ability to communicate on at least a basic level in five languages, that was considered astounding in the United States, but would be nothing out of the ordinary in other parts of the world.

My daughter is now studying Chinese, and I am a French professor, fighting constantly on my own campus the inaccurate perception that French is "dead" and that "only" Asian languages are worth studying. Yes, English has become the lingua franca for business, science, computing, etc. But American businesspeople, scholars, diplomats, and soldiers who accept that complacently are doing themselves as well as our country a vast disservice. Understanding the cultures and people with whom we are working requires familiarity with their language.

I am completely in favor of increased study of Asian languages. By all means, study Chinese, Arabic, and Korean. But it is foolhardy indeed to jettison the study of European languages such as French and German simply because Asian economies are growing. Our biggest trading partners include both the European Union (France and Germany in particular) and Canada (where French is one of the official languages). The backlog of untranslated classified material prior to 9/11 included information shared by the French intelligence services. French remains a lingua franca in many parts of Africa. These facts are known to French teachers, but often ignored by administrators. Asian languages should be studied more in the United States -- but so should European languages.

I have not even mentioned the intellectual reasons for studying other languages, the reasons I became interested in subjects such as Spanish-American literature and Chinese history in the first place. It seems sadly true that our country values humanistic study less and less. But even if one focuses purely on the economic and strategic situation, we must realize that a diversity of language, cultural, and literary study is paramount to our country's well-being and success. For my part, I still hope to pass on to my students not only a new appreciation for other cultures as well as of their own, but also the love of language in general, of beauty of expression, of elegance of speech that I gained through my studies in other languages.

17. hsaussy - November 08, 2010 at 09:11 pm

What you gain from learning a foreign language is access to the conversations that people are having and have been having for centuries in that language. Much of what I know about Africa and the Middle East comes to me through French-language media, as French is still a primary literary language for intellectuals in those regions; and the content of those conversations is not paralleled elsewhere. You don't learn French purely to read Proust or appreciate Bordeaux. A lack of awareness of these other international conversations going on in every widely-circulated language leaves Americans, and English-speakers generally, crippled by their language's good fortune.
How to make people see what they are missing? --This is the PR problem of the foreign-language profession (and of education in general, as universities redefine themselves, mendaciously, as success factories).

18. polyglot - November 08, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Every job I have ever gotten after high school was because I knew another language. Coming from a fairly homogenous small town, studying foreign languages opened doors for me and gave me a cultural competency that has served me well in professional as well as social situations. I find it disheartening that my underfunded mediocre high school offered more choice of language study than SUNY Albany will after its cuts. Introductory language courses are valuable, but beginning language students cannot experience the same depth and richness of culture advanced students gain through years of study. For most people, learning new languages is a broadening experience that offers them insight into their own language and culture through the eyes of another as well in addition to the insight they gain into another country. It is wonderful that Spanish and some Asian languages will still be offered, but this in itself cannot justify the cutting of other language programs.

19. dishtoon - November 09, 2010 at 08:29 am

I would love to see a language/culture immersion in the early education years. Bringing in native speakers from within the community to teach beginning phrases and common usage while at the same time introducing the culture to students for several months at a time over the life of their schooling... whether it be pointing out where the asian market is in town, or the latino restaurant, or brazilian boutique, or introducing the ethnic festivals in town, the possibilities are endless!... and then teaching the common phrases to use when visiting each - good morning, thank you, have a nice day... etc. Begin the connection within the community - our own community. Bridge the gap within. Establish and build common ground - it is when we identify with others that we connect.

20. jffoster - November 09, 2010 at 08:36 am

The hippopotama in the creek, or maybe in this case the hypotenuse, include

a. the finite nature of resources.
b. the level of demand
c. the complicity of Language & Literature departments in shooting themselves in the foot.

There are some 6000 or so languages in the world. No university can offer beginning or intermediate, let alone advanced, courses in even all thoe ones that have over, say 12 million speakers. So each college and university must be literally heretical--it must make choices.

The demand generally for foreign language study at the truly advanced level (third year or higher) is not very high. It would actually not even be particularly high for the first two years were it not artificially stimulated by general education requirements. In an effort to create more demand, some of the languages departments -- Romance Languages have been espicially culpritful here--have tried to gather more students in by offering "culture" or civilization courses taught IN ENGLISH. Such courses can actually be very good. I had a very good course in French Civilization and Institutions when I was an undergraduate. But it was an upperclass level course taught IN FRENCH. And many of these courses now in "culture", taught in English, are little more than one could learn from a good comprehensive travel guide.

The result has been the undermining of demand for truly advanced courses in the traditional language departments IN THAT LANGUAGE, and the loss of support from the Social Sciences departments because these courses are viewed, often justifiably, as a light easy way to satisfy a "cultural diversity" requirement.

21. alf2010 - November 09, 2010 at 08:55 am

@guest_231

The courses you list are considered early semester classes, and they are simply teaching basic speaking and comprehension skills (even at the intermediate or advanced level). If a person were to major in any of those languages, most of those classes would not count towards the major requirements. Truly advanced language courses at the university-level would be reading and and writing about literature in that language, learning history in the that language, etc.

22. dank48 - November 09, 2010 at 10:35 am

Right. Talk about a sign of the times.

Why would any American want to learn any language, English included? Why would we bother? After all, if they want to do business with us, they can learn our language. . . . And what's our most popular "major" these days? Oh, yeah.

We're lazy, ignorant, fat, and happy, and we'll by God stay that way until those who are more energetic, motivated, hungry, and ambitious eat our lunch for us. Mental isolation is even more effective than geographical and, in the long run, just as deadly. When institutions of "higher learning" pander to the desires of adolescents rather than offer a real education, and can't imagine why anyone would do otherwise, it's time to either reevaluate what we're doing or raise the white flag.

23. brownp - November 09, 2010 at 11:27 am

We here at SUNY New Paltz have already seen all courses in Arabic, Russian and Latin get cut over the last several years, as well as my own major program in German. I see us ending up as a glorified high school in the near future, resulting in an incalculable loss to the university and to the country. We have already fallen behind dozens of other countries when it comes to educating our citizens, and the consequences could be truly disastrous.

24. drj50 - November 09, 2010 at 11:28 am

I agree with almost all of the things said here about the importance of studying foreign languages. However, offering programs that enroll few, if any, students, does nothing to advance those important goals.

Students have no inherent right to take any course of study they wish from any particular university. If you want to study (say) Portuguese, you need to attend a school that offers it. In 2008-09, it appears that SUNY (all of it, not just Albany) graduated a total of seven Russian majors from four university Russian programs. Given this level of interest in Russian among public university students in New York State, I cannot see why more than one SUNY campus should offer a major in Russian.

I wish things were different for the study of foreign languages, but wishing doesn't make things so. Should we really be spending scarce resources to maintain programs students are not interested in while other faculty in other programs provide a diminished educational experience to hundreds of students because of heavy teaching loads and large classes?

25. lsmaterna - November 09, 2010 at 12:13 pm

All of this talk is fine, but for those of us who want to mobilize--and have the MLA be at the center of this mobilization--to recapture the discourse about what constitutes a liberal arts education and about the centrality of literary study and linguistics in languages that have been part of the development of the Western Worl as well as literature for so-called critical languages....

What are we going to do? We've been talking about this for years and now the moment of capitalist creative destruction is here and is being used as a reason to destroy something important.

What does the MLA propose? There needs to be a plan, and the MLA should be its initiator. Why not dedicate MLA funds to the creation for starters of a sort of MOVEON.COM for professors of English and Foreign Languages? And why not set up a lobbying team etc. etc.

26. rosemaryfeal - November 09, 2010 at 02:09 pm

drj50: Let's look at the 10 year history of Russian majors at Albany. It is a total of 36, more than in Chinese (total of 31). And that is 36 out of a SUNY Univ flagship total in Russian of 42. All but 6 of the Russian majors in the state were at Albany. It's clear that the Albany decision is not motivated by the numbers. Rather, it's a devaluation of the importance of advanced learning in major languages such as Russian. And, I repeat, the number of majors is not the only (or most reliable) metric when it comes to deciding what programs to offer.

27. 12094478 - November 09, 2010 at 02:21 pm

I am sure the MLA will do something about this. For now, the AATF is organising a defense of college French which will certainly be applicable to other languages:

French Advocacy Wiki
https://frenchadvocacy.wikispaces.com

Ideas for French Language & Culture Advocacy in the US
http://www.utm.edu/staff/globeg/advofr.shtml

Specific college program links:

https://frenchadvocacy.wikispaces.com/06.++Advocating+--+College
http://www.utm.edu/staff/globeg/frenchdegree.html
http://www.utm.edu/staff/globeg/danger.html

answer to # 4 "No European languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters." I would add "level-1 languages" (similar short period for motivated Anglophones to learn). This may mean that there will be so much pressure on Spanish that, without hiring more faculty, they may have to let some of their low-enrollment courses go.

28. tolerantly - November 09, 2010 at 03:21 pm

ewrobins, #7, writes:

"'But there I'm really speaking in ignorance. What is it that foreign-language scholars do that isn't done better by native speakers in their own countries?' - tolerantly

I don't know if we necessarily "do" anything better, or if they "do", however I think you miss the point entirely. If we all kept to ourselves and didn't branch out because we didn't think we had anything to bring to the table, or were too afraid that we couldn't, we'd all sit in isolation from everyone else. As a graduate student of French (American born-n-bred), I believe that what we do isn't a fragmented study in whatever our area of specialty is, but that rather, we all collaborate together and our linguistic differences allow us to each conceptualize and present ideas the other may not have thought about. We exchange information and ideas, and it doesn't have to be about who can or does do it better."

Except that with limited money, it does. Unless you want to do this for free -- and I have no objection to this, since I often work this way as a writer -- "better" is certainly important.

"But a more pragmatic answer to your question can be summed up in the following: we care. We care enough to spend the time, to take the time to learn and dive into things that native speakers may not care about, or may not have access to (whether that be because of education, finances, whatever else is going on in their lives)."

Yes, understood -- but I'm dubious. Maybe there are things you can point out to scholar-speakers of another language about their own language, and -- who knows? -- you may even have enough cultural sensitivity to have nailed something, but to whom is it useful?

Formal study of foreign language and culture is immediately useful to a small set of people for important and elite work (diplomacy, science, translation, arts, etc.); but you're talking about something even more abstruse, something of interest to a handful of people for the intellectual satisfaction alone, as far as I can make out. And while this is marvelous, I don't see why any country should feel obliged to spend millions a year on it. I mean if we've got the money, sure, why not. But we don't.

"Admittedly, I'm sure there are many foreign scholars who can talk about American literature and culture far better than we could."

I'm not sure about that at all. Foreign news/culture analysts routinely miss the point of what we do; it's why reading the Americas section of The Economist is so amusing. I might trust a remarkably perceptive foreign scholar who'd spent some decades in the US, but someone working abroad who'd done no more than take research trips here? Non, probably not. For that matter, it's rare to find an American from one region who has a real feel for literature coming out of another.

29. tolerantly - November 09, 2010 at 03:35 pm

"A lack of awareness of these other international conversations going on in every widely-circulated language leaves Americans, and English-speakers generally, crippled by their language's good fortune."-hsausssy

While this is true, it's not something that English-speakers mind, and for good reason. You can't force people to want something they don't need or miss, especially when it's difficult and expensive to acquire.

Do you understand that most households in this country don't even have much in the way of books? People don't read much; most of what they read is garbage; they've barely the attention span for email. They aren't interested in most conversations going on in English, let alone in other languages, rooted in other cultures, unless they happen to have a family connection.

You're talking about something of interest -- intense interest, granted -- to a very small group of people. Is it worthy, interesting, yes. But I think it's a mistake to try to represent it as universally necessary. It isn't.

When another language challenges English successfully we will learn and learn quickly.

30. joannaoconnell - November 09, 2010 at 05:23 pm

Tolerantly, once one has admitted ignorance, maybe it is best to... be quiet and learn?

31. aprilspratley - November 09, 2010 at 08:02 pm

I think that we miss the point by arguing purely from a utilitarian perspective. We forget that exposure to a foreign culture garners us a deeper perspective on our own. We forget that education should be more than simply than those things that we can show a one-to-one correspondence with a job. By loss of Classics programs, we deny today's students the opportunity to understand the works of the past that helped to shape the creation of our nation. It is no accident that we named our Senate after the ancient Roman one. Our celebrated American authors knew and loved Latin and Greek.
But even a purely utilitarian perspective argues that Latin and ancient Greek are deeply practical. The critical thinking skills that learning Latin and Greek create are transferrable to many disciplines. Indeed, Classics majors tend to do better on the MCATs and the GREs than other majors. Furthermore, the increase in simple English vocabulary is invaluable, as is the chance to get a better understanding of English syntax and grammar via comparing it with those of the ancient languages. Indeed, the utility is clear by simply looking at SAT scores; students of Latin have outperformed every other subgroup for over a decade, yet we dismiss it as being non-useful? Jefferson knew and loved his Vergil, his Homer, his Cicero, yet now we deny the students of tomorrow the same opportunity to appreciate the great thinkers of our past.

32. russo41 - November 09, 2010 at 08:32 pm

I would like to reiterate Haun Saussy's message. My knowledge of several European languages gives me access to global discussions on pertinent matters.
I would also like to clarify the situation at Louisiana State University. It is not comparable to that at SUNY Albany. In the first place, the university administration is responsive to the faculty. The faculty senate has displayed forceful leadership and the student body has taken courageous initiatives to save the integrity of the institution. The current elimination of several foreign languages has more to do with the state's budget situation than the university's lack of understanding of the importance of foreign languages and literature in their own right and in their relation to other disciplines. The LSU Ourso School of Business Administration focuses on emerging markets. The loss of Portuguese limits effectiveness in dealing with emerging markets in Brazil. LSU's problem has more to do with the status of non-professorial faculty than to a lack of awareness to the importance of the Humanities and Arts.
Any university worthy of that designation should make the advanced study of Classical, European, Slavic, Asian, African and Indigneous Languages and Literature available to its students, especially public institutions.

33. jffoster - November 09, 2010 at 09:30 pm

In 31 AprilSpratley says the following:

"The critical thinking skills that learning Latin and Greek create are transferrable to many disciplines. Indeed, Classics majors tend to do better on the MCATs and the GREs than other majors. Furthermore, the increase in simple English vocabulary is invaluable, as is the chance to get a better understanding of English syntax and grammar via comparing it with those of the ancient languages."

1. How does learning Latin or Greek (not closely related) "create" any more "critical thinking skills" than learning any other foreign language would? What evidence have you that it does?

2. What evidence have you that the higher GRE Scores (and MCATS) are not simply due to a greater familiarity with Latin or Greek roots? And what is your sample size for Classics majors taking MCATS? How do you know which is the horse and which the cart, i.e. how do you know the Classics major is the independent variable?

3. As to "the chance to get a better understanding of English syntax and grammar via comparing it with those of the ancient languages.", how is that any better than comparing or contrasting English "syntax and grammar" [SIC -- that's like saying Oranges and Fruit] with any other language, whether "ancient" or not?

One of the problems the Language Arts faculty have in attempts to justify their subjects is the continued proferring of reasons that are naive and linguistically uninformed. I was a foreign language major as an undergraduate myself, have studied a number of languages, and am all for it. But not for linguistically unsupportable reasons.

34. jffoster - November 09, 2010 at 09:40 pm

Russo 41, (32), I agree with you about LSU's situation. I actually am a product of their German major -- 45 years ago. Which is not to say that German is necessarily a viable major at the Olde War School now.

You also say this: "Any university worthy of that designation should make the advanced study of Classical, European, Slavic [sic -- Slavic languages are spoken mostly in Europe], Asian, African and Indigneous Languages and Literature available to its students, especially public institutions."

How does one implement this as a practicable matter? First, by "indigenous" do you mean 'indigenous to Louisiana, to North America, or where. How many "indigenous" languages should "any university worthy of that designation" make the advanced study of available in? How many Asian languages? How many African languages? And so on?

And which "Classical" languages? To mean by "Classical" only Latin and Greek is highly ethnocentric and parochial. There's Classical Chinese, Classical Mongolian, Classical Aztec (Nahuatl), Sanskrit, ....


35. farm_boy - November 09, 2010 at 09:49 pm

As far as I know, there has been only one book written analyzing the problems with the U.S. foreign-language teaching model: _Monolingual Americans_

36. tolerantly - November 09, 2010 at 10:42 pm

AprilSpratley (31) writes: "I think that we miss the point by arguing purely from a utilitarian perspective. We forget that exposure to a foreign culture garners us a deeper perspective on our own."

April, it's the same argument turned inward instead of out. The problem is that Americans do not appear to be interested in such a perspective. And if 300 million people are telling you something, you should consider taking them seriously.

Again, this is something of interest to a few elites. I happen to think these elites are just terrific and their work quite possibly worthy and delightful. I've studied several languages, I enjoy languages, I read things in other languages on purpose, and I'm fluent in...one. Why? Because I'm an American. Not only have I absolutely zero need to speak another language, I have to go far out of my way to put myself in a situation where it's necessary. In fact, when I travel, others beat me to the punch, either because they're anxious to practice their English or because it's just easier for them to switch to English than to deal with my struggling along in their language. I'd say that the chance of my needing to speak another language in the next 20 years is approximately nil. And languages are live things. Yes, you can study, you can practice, but unless you live in a language, it's not so good.

I can't say I'm enormously distressed by this. English is a tremendously large and capable language, and its variants are engaging. I've had language teachers laugh at me for my repeat requests for more vocabulary, analogues to distinctions available in English. "We don't have that many words, it's a small language; we just say _____." If you have to live a monolingual life in practice -- and most of us here do -- it's not terrible having to do it in English.

In the end I liken this to any other artistic or intellectual pursuit that's all kinds of wonderful but not particularly valued by a devotedly market economy. If you really want to do it, and you have talent, you'll figure it out. I do; I don't get paid for my main work, and don't expect to. (And no, there's no rich husband or trust fund lurking in the background, supporting me.)

Rather than complain about this, I'd suggest that you view the market obsession as the blessing it is. If we were a nation that valued high ideals above the green, you'd run more scared than you do now. It's a great boon to you that the people who write the big checks aren't so interested in what you think and what you value. You've been supported in style for decades for something most people don't care about; this is a win. But when it's over, it's over. There's not so much money now; we stopped doing those things that made us a rich country some time ago, and now it's starting to hit home.

37. ckramsch - November 10, 2010 at 11:41 am

Yes, it's all about the "centrality and indisputable relevance of language study"! it's not about becoming a nation of polyglotts or of reducing the role of English as a global language. It's about gaining ACCESS to what people, who speak other languages, think, remember, and dream of,in these their other languages.

38. texasguy - November 10, 2010 at 02:13 pm

To jffoster:

Learning Latin and (Ancient) Greek is a very different endeavor from leaning a modern language because these two ancient languages had much more complex grammatical structures than most modern languages. Latin nouns have six cases for the singular and six cases for for the plural. As adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun they qualify, an adjective has 3x2x6=36 different cases.

In addition, Greek and Latin authors wrote the seminal works of Western literature. Many of these works remain meaningful today because the Greeks and Romans were political people like we are today. In some sense, we are much closer to Cicero and Demosthenes than to Henri VIII or Louis XIV.

39. californiamom - November 10, 2010 at 03:39 pm

The distinction between utilitarian learning and non-utilitarian learning is a false one. Universities help students learn how to think in a more complex and nuanced way about themselves, other people, and the natural and manmade environment in which we live and work. In particular, recent events have made it all too clear that students will need to be flexible to get ahead and to reinvent their work skills as needed. University study is not just a major nor is it just vocational training for one job as it happens to be defined when a student is 18 years old, and which will no doubt be very different by the time he or she is 30 or 40. Chances are any job will come to involve more interaction with people from other cultures within the U.S. and abroad, and language and culture learning gives students skills to succeed in cross-cultural settings.

Second language acquisition, which is not just language learning but a unique combination of language and culture learning, is an important way to think about one's own culture as it relates to other cultures, present and past. It is a crucial part of skills in cross-cultural interaction.

While humanities and social science courses taught in English are important for learning about other cultures, they cannot take the place of learning language and culture together.



40. jffoster - November 10, 2010 at 05:09 pm

Texas Guy in 38 offers an answer to some of my questions. His first paragraph however does. Its first sentence reads thus:

"Learning Latin and (Ancient) Greek is a very different endeavor from leaning a modern language because these two ancient languages had much more complex grammatical structures than most modern languages."

This is only partially true if your criterion for "complexity" is morphological complexity of noun paradigms. Which yours seems to be, since you continue...

"Latin nouns have six cases for the singular and six cases for for the plural."

Actually, they have only five in wide general use. But Russian nouns have six cases in general use with a vestigial seventh and eighth. Lithuanian has 8 cases. Finnish has a dozen or so cases and Hungarian has 18. So if number of cases is that important, then universities should replace Latin with Hungarian.

As adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun they qualify, an adjective has 3x2x6=36 different cases.

So? Want to guess how many different forms a Turkish verb can take? Oh, and Turkish nouns have a number of cases too.

Why do you make one particular kind of word morphology paradigm complexity your criterion? The vast majority of linguists don't.

English for instance has very complex verb ~ auxiliary system, the bane of people trying to learn it as a foreign language. And English along with Dannorwedish has a very peculiar possessive suffix, spelled {'s} in English and {e)s} in Dannorwedish, that is actually not a noun suffix but a Noun Phrase suffix. e.g.

'The man who stayed to supper's hat....'

--very unusual among languages of the world.

41. pocvecem - November 11, 2010 at 12:06 am

I have but one question for Rosemary Feal.

Are advanced foreign language courses designed to reach the goals you mention in your piece? If these courses look anything like the research that seems to be coming out of American foreign language departments, I have to assume that the answer is "no." It looks like this commentary is defending an ideal instead of the current reality.

Maybe foreign language departments would not be in so much trouble if they had remained true to their purpose in the university.

42. rosemaryfeal - November 11, 2010 at 08:06 am

pocvecem: Obviously, the curricula in any given program varies by institution. Your argument-- that languages departments would not be in so much trouble if they had remained "true to their purpose"-- doesn't hold. All fields evolve. We don't teach history today the way we did in 1920. The topics covered in a philosophy department have changed over time. It's up to a university to decide what the curriculum should look like. First, you start with values (what are we? what do we want to be?) and you build from there. Leaders don't wake up one morning and say, wow, we're not sure that dept X is remaining true to its purpose... let's fire them all! In one of my jobs I was in a very progressive language department that attracted new students precisely because it had evolved beyond the way things were done in the 1950s.

43. pocvecem - November 11, 2010 at 09:41 am

@rosemaryfeal

Thank you for the response. I didn't mean to say that programs should not evolve and that they don't differ among institutions. I was taking "purpose" to be the ideals you articulated in your commentary, which presumably are not relics of the 1950s. I'm asking whether your defense is relevant to the way things are done now at the majority of colleges. Although fields evolve, they can evolve into things that no longer offer the intellectual benefits they claim to have. As you said, "it's up to the university to decide what the curriculum should look like" and maybe these departments aren't fulfilling the curricular role the university expects of them. I'm sure your former department was thriving precisely because it was fulfilling its institutionally assigned role; I'm not equating "progressive" with "failing." But it doesn't change the fact that programs at other colleges are obviously struggling.

I emphasize the words "asking" and "maybe" in all of this. I don't want to see the collapse of foreign language study any more than you do. The one thing I know for sure is that the tough questions have to be considered if foreign language programs are to survive. It's not enough to point to shared ideals if current practices on the ground don't appear to embody those ideals.

44. rosemaryfeal - November 11, 2010 at 10:10 am

Yes, pocvecem, which is why the MLA has charted the way for departments to become stronger. See http://www.mla.org/flreport for a cogent analysis and recommendations for teaching languages in a changed world.

45. farm_boy - November 12, 2010 at 02:15 pm

The Communicative Language Teaching "Revolution" has been a failure. The first step in recovery is to acknowledge the problem.

46. russkyrox - November 15, 2010 at 11:16 am

@tolerantly

I appreciate your point of view, @tolerantly, because it is a perfect example of the underlying mentality that has led to the problems discussed by Dr. Feal. :)

As scholars, we take the sensibilities of 300 million Americans VERY seriously. It is this "market mentality" that we feel is shortsighted, narrow-minded, and has left Americans dreadfully behind on many levels in our multilingual, multicultural world. While we may rule the roost NOW with out economic prowess, it is not hard to foresee our dethronement in the future. While our businesses are "globalizing," our mentality is NOT. We remain monocultural and monolingual. Our "isolationist" policies on learning foreign languages will eventually leave us behind economically as well.

Your arguments, while sound, only illustrate and defend the status quo. In other words, since Americans are generally less educated than other nations AND since we seem to be OK with that, why try to change? It's expensive and since most of the world is currently catering to our ignorance, why spend the money to overcome it? Furthermore, since we hardly gain any long-term proficiency in a language from studying it only in college, why gain any at all? Do you truly believe that settling for the status quo is really the "right" attitude to have???

As one of those "elitist" scholars (God knows I've always wanted to be part of the "elite"), who sees the importance of being multilingual and multicultural, it is my job, and the job of other scholars like me, to question the status quo and despite the current consensus by the masses, identify and raise awareness of issues that most people don't see or don't care about. While it may seem arrogant, it is our job in this free society to serve as "change agents" to suggest and implement changes that will benefit society - even when that society doesn't realize it needs changing.

It all comes down to a question of values and budgetary ramifications. Learning a foreign language (past the basic level) provides a uniquely subjective view of another culture and people - a view that can't be learned through any other subject of study. Such a worldview can uniquely prepare students for our "globalized" multicultural world and depriving them of such opportunities should be viewed as unacceptable despite our temporary monetary difficulties. THIS is the view that we wish SUNY-Albany (and others) would have.

47. anon1972 - November 24, 2010 at 10:14 am

russkyrox -- hear, hear!

I would add, for those who believe that all those foreigners out there will simply continue to oblige us by doing all their business with us in the "universal lingua franca" of English: what do you think those foreigners are saying to each other in their own language, right in front of us because they know we can't understand? Don't you wish you knew?

If you think all those people in other countries are learning English purely to indulge us in our desire to speak nothing else, think again. They're learning it (and other foreign languages) because they perceive a strategic advantage in being able to speak the language of the other side. A strategic advantage we are wilfully denying ourselves.

48. frenchie - November 27, 2010 at 06:20 pm

As a French/German national and faculty teaching at a US research institution, I can only voice my concern about the ongoing crisis in the Humanities here. While I have been peridically derided for doing what I do by people who don't value languages and have no interest in discovering other countries, I feel strongly that the US is lucky to have us "natives" to teach US students about our cultures and languages. Frankly, many of my peers have other -- equally interesting -- options and job opportunities and would be happy to go back to their home countries or other destinations. US academia might indeed soon witness a reverse brain drain and be very isolated from Europe and the rest of the world. This is very worrisome indeed. Just imagine that for many of us non US citizens teaching here, the US is by no means the center of the universe. For all the talk about diversity here in the US and in academia, I don't see much evidence of that here. The US might soon be a very isolated country and regret dismissing the Humanities. Maybe this country really wants to be monolingual. SO be it.

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