Colleges strive to make foreign languages relevant
Elizabeth Redden Inside Higher Ed
Timothy A. Bennett strives toward a new vision for the foreign language department. "You can think of a university as a little continent full of different kingdoms," said Bennett, chair of the foreign languages and literatures department at Wittenberg University, a Lutheran liberal arts college in Ohio. "I'd prefer that language departments suffused the curriculum rather than just be another kingdom among many kingdoms."
To that end, Wittenberg's language department has revised its own intermediate-level language classes — making them more interdisciplinary in nature — and has spread outward across the university in the form of a new "Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum" (CLAC) program. In making these recent changes — with the help of a two-year, $179,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education— Wittenberg's foreign language faculty were responding both to a charge to "internationalize" the curriculum and to a growing sense that student interests were changing.
"The traditional study of language and literature really wasn't addressing the current generation," Bennett said. "So how could we begin to reach out and find ways for students to understand the importance of language and culture study and to see language not necessarily as an end unto itself but as a tool of discovery, a way of encountering the world and the disciplines?"
In Wittenberg's CLAC program, students sign up for a one-credit language module as an optional add-on to a non-language class in another discipline. In a tutorial fashion, the student designs an independent project in consultation with the professor of the content class and executes it under the guidance of a foreign language faculty member (advising CLAC students now counts toward a foreign language professor's teaching load).
"The point is not to make it into a language class," said Bennett. "The point is to make it an experience with the content area where the language is the key to being able to complete the project." For instance, Bennett, who teaches German, worked with a student in a geology class as she researched geothermal energy and seismic activity in Germany. Students in a Chinese-language module for a course on Japanese history researched how China responded to the bombing at Hiroshima.
"That's a really tough nut to crack," said Bennett. "You're working with students with an intermediate knowledge of Chinese and they may only get a small chunk of that problem solved. They may only be able to look at very small portions of newspaper articles, or maybe only look at propaganda posters in some cases, but nonetheless what happened is they were able to see ways in which language and culture construct knowledge."
The only prerequisite for the CLAC modules is to be enrolled in or have completed a two-credit intermediate-level language course. "One of the points we want to make with students is even if you're at a beginning/intermediate level, you can begin doing something with a language," Bennett said.
Which brings up the revised intermediate-level courses. Wittenberg threw out the traditional model in which skills —composition and conversation —are the organizing principle. Instead the college teaches language through interdisciplinary study. After one year of college language — the French, German, Russian or Spanish 1 and 2 sequence —students can now elect to take a variety of half-semester, two-credit intermediate-level language courses in topics in history, the environment, film, national identity, and translation, for example. (Chinese and Japanese retain more traditional intermediate-level courses, due to the steeper learning curve for those languages.) "What we're trying to do is build as many gateways for students to come in and study language and culture, connect it to as many issues, topics as we can," said Bennett.
Or, as Timothy L. Wilkerson, an associate professor of French put it, "We had to find a way to make second-year French not suck." In the traditional composition class, as he explained, "Everything you do is wrong. Everything you do is circled in red and everything has to be rewritten and often by the teacher."
Prior to the curricular changes, the French department was struggling. It wasn't uncommon for Wilkerson to teach upper-level literature courses with just three students. But after he taught an intermediate French course on the natural environment this year – the title of the French-language text he used translates as Ecology for Idiots – three of the students from that single class signed up for a French minor, Wilkerson said. "It taught them something about the world, in French, that they didn't know. It was all bad news unfortunately," Wilkerson said, cheekily.
In broad strokes, Wittenberg's two-pronged reforms – an embrace of interdisciplinarity within the department's offerings and a movement across departmental boundaries to make language study relevant to a broader demographic of students – represent a microcosm of the kind of change language departments across the nation are debating and discussing.
An influential 2007 Modern Language Association report, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World," called for giving students options for language study beyond the traditional literary track, and for increased collaboration with departments across campus. Noting that only 6.1% of foreign language majors attain a doctoral degree, the report states that, "for those students and for others who enjoy literary studies, one path to the major should be through literature. But to attract students from other fields and students with interests beyond literary studies, particularly students returning from a semester or a year abroad, departments should institute courses that address a broad range of curricular needs."
"The foreign language programs at many institutions are facing budget cuts, and a lot of institutions have been looking hard to strengthen the programs, especially in collaboration with other units on campus," said Rosemary Feal, the MLA's executive director.
"What we're seeing is a shifting in thinking on the part of faculty members in foreign language departments. They are rethinking their curricula in the light of changing needs of students in the 21st century, a desire to internationalize the campus, and in response to shifting budget priorities."
Integrating Content, Language
More students than ever are studying abroad, albeit increasingly on short-term programs. Virtually every college seems to have added "international" or "global" to its mission statement or strategic plan. Colleges are offering more languages than in the past and increasing numbers of students are signing up (total foreign language enrollments climbed 12.9% from 2002 to 2006, according to an MLA survey). And yet depressingly small numbers of students ever reach the advanced levels of proficiency that a "global citizen" might be presumed to possess (as that same MLA survey found, enrollments beyond introductory-level language courses drop off dramatically).
"If you're going to internationalize the curriculum, it seems to me that languages should be leading the charge," said Bennett, of Wittenberg. "I think sometimes the reason we're not is it does require some rethinking of what we're doing."
Language departments increasingly have had to look beyond the pool of potential majors and minors and ask "Who's my audience?" said Heidi Byrnes, a professor of German at Georgetown University and president of the American Association for Applied Linguistics. "And I think the potential audience has to be everybody."
"The challenge I see now in a more globalized environment is it is not just sufficient for people to be able to communicate with others on a daily basis, and learn to appreciate each other on a personal level, but what's happening now is we're finding more and more of a need to use language in a professional environment," she said. Students should be prepared to use language in a variety of professional contexts, Byrnes said, and thus the need for integrating content and language acquisition has never been greater — and her own German department at Georgetown has gained national recognition for doing just that. But while it can be done, Byrnes cautions, linking the two isn't easy. "From the standpoint of applied linguistics, it continues to be very challenging to come up with a principled link, not just an ad-hoc link, between language learning and content learning," she said.
Content-based language generally describes what happens when language professors offer courses in other disciplines — in ecology, history, or politics, for instance. The goal, first and foremost, remains teaching the language, with interdisciplinary study a means to this end.
On the other side of the spectrum are the "language across the curriculum" programs, which Stephen Straight of the State University of New York at Binghamton, has described as "language-based content instruction."
Straight, a professor of anthropology and linguistics and senior adviser for international initiatives, spearheaded the creation of a language across the curriculum program at Binghamton in the early 90s. In Binghamton's program, graduate students facilitate study groups in a target language for a select number of courses. "It's not a language acquisition program, it's a language use program," Straight explained. "We use the language to help students have a more international perspective on the content of a course," by examining applicable texts written in the target language, for instance.
The language across the curriculum programs aren't new —a member of the "across the curriculum" family (writing, science, communication, etc.) —the initiative was born of the late 80s and early 90s, and at some campuses faded when federal grant support ran out. But a core group of believers feels that the movement never reached its full potential and has new relevance as colleges increasingly incorporate international perspectives in their curriculums.
"For so many of our U.S. students, the only time they're going to use a non-English language in an applied way is if they're doing an immersion program in study abroad," said Diana K. Davies, vice provost for international initiatives at Princeton University and president of the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum consortium, which is made up of 10 institutions: Baldwin-Wallace and Skidmore Colleges; Binghamton, Drake, Portland State and Wittenberg Universities; and the Universities of Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Richmond.
While one of the 10 universities in the CLAC consortium, Drake University, eliminated its foreign language departments about a decade ago and now offers language instruction in new ways, Davies stressed that CLAC initiatives should not be seen as replacements for language programs but as international elements of the curriculum.
"Some people might say, 'Here comes languages across the curriculum' and they've found a way to outsource what language experts are doing. That's not the goal of CLAC," said Davies. "It's not, if you will, to teach foreign language on the cheap, to outsource it to native speakers. The goal is rather to get over this idea that so many students have that French or German or Russian is something you do or study in your French or German or Russian class. Yes, you do that, and you need a French, German or Russian expert to help you, but what we're showing is that French or German or Russian are things you can use in your history or biology or business course. And you don't have to be fluent in those languages to really benefit from whatever ability you have."
A criticism of CLAC, in fact, is that, in privileging the study of disciplinary content, it involves too little attention to language acquisition. "If we're talking about students eventually reaching advanced-level skills, the language piece can't be left out," said Carol A. Klee, assistant vice president for international scholarship and a professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese studies at the University of Minnesota.
Language Across the Curriculum
A variety of different models for language across the curriculum programs exist. Like Binghamton, UNC Chapel Hill hires graduate students —at a rate of $5,000 per semester —to teach discussion sections in target languages. For instance, this fall students can sign up for a Spanish discussion section for a business course in Global Marketing, or a French discussion section for a history course on 20th Century Europe. For less commonly taught languages, there are combined discussion sections, in which students from three courses dealing with related issues in the Middle East, for instance, can sign up for a single discussion section conducted in Arabic. Graduate students who teach in North Carolina's program can earn a graduate certificate in LAC instruction.
Baldwin-Wallace College, in Ohio, has experimented with a number of models, including LAC-embedded courses, in which interested faculty allow students to complete selected assignments in a specific language. For instance, in a macroeconomics course, students can take up the instructor's option to complete certain assignments in Spanish. Baldwin-Wallace also offers a one-credit course, in French, German, or Spanish, as an optional add-on to a required core course called Enduring Questions for an Intercultural World.
On the Web: Outsourcing Language Learning
This latter option hasn't proven particularly popular, but Baldwin-Wallace just received a $195,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop two-credit stand-alone courses within the majors, taught in target languages —for instance, a biology professor has developed a Spanish-language course on environmental science in Latin America, and an education professor has developed a course on the use of Spanish in primary and secondary classrooms. These courses will not generally be team-taught but instead will rely on a cadre of professors in a variety of disciplines who have professional-level expertise in another language. The grant also allows Baldwin-Wallace to hire a new professor of Chinese and business, and provides scholarship funding —$750 per student to be matched by another $750 from Baldwin-Wallace —for students who've taken a LAC course to study abroad.
"We have tried to develop incentives to get students interested," said Judy B. Krutky, director for intercultural education and professor of political science and international studies at Baldwin-Wallace. "From my perspective the question has always been, 'How do we get more Americans to study a foreign language?' "