US: MLA Report Calls for Transformation of Foreign-Language Education

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 24 14:05:46 UTC 2007
Thursday, May 24, 2007

MLA Report Calls for Transformation of Foreign-Language Education

Foreign-language teaching at American colleges and universities --
typically characterized by two or three years of grammar and
vocabulary taught pretty much in a vacuum, followed by more advanced
courses in literature -- has outlived its usefulness and needs to
change, according to a report to be released today by the Modern
Language Association. That well-established model, it says, should be
replaced by language programs organized on an interdisciplinary basis
and containing from the beginning more cultural content to make
graduates better able to function in an increasingly global
environment. What is needed, the report says, is "a broader and more
coherent curriculum in which language, culture, and literature are
taught as a continuous whole."

The 15-page report, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New
Structures for a Changed World," was produced by a committee of seven
senior language educators who spent two years studying the state of
language teaching and came up with recommendations.  The approach put
forward by the group has been discussed in general terms at various
meetings of language educators in recent months, to widespread
approval. Still, supporters expect the paper to spark controversy in
language departments.

"The departments are by and large still dominated by literature
specialists," said Michael H. Long, director of the School of
Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Maryland at
College Park. "The recommendations of the report are going to run up
against a lot of vested interests."  Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl,
director of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Language Center,
said, "Those of us in foreign languages and applied linguistics are
very excited" about the report's recommendations. Still, she added,
for many senior foreign-language faculty members, "there is going to
be a lot of discomfort. This is not going to be a welcome report."

Indeed, the report calls for a deep restructuring of language
departments. Typically, most tenured and tenure-track positions are
filled by literature specialists who do little lower-level language
teaching. In doctoral-granting departments, the report says, tenured
or tenure-track faculty members teach only 7.4 percent of first-year
undergraduate courses. If anything, that model has become more
entrenched. "In the last few decades, we could see a drift of faculty
members away from first-year courses," said Rosemary G. Feal,
executive director of the Modern Language Association.

That trend has contributed to a two-tier system in which first- and
second-year language instructors, often lower-paid specialists
employed with yearlong contracts, have no say in designing study
programs. "It would be difficult to exaggerate the frustration this
rigid and hierarchical model evokes," the report says. The structure
"devalues the early years of language learning and impedes the
development of a unified language-and-content curriculum." The report
calls for replacing the two-tier system with more cooperative and
integrated departments, and for hiring more linguists and
second-language-acquisition specialists who would help in designing
higher-quality courses.

Among its recommendations, the report says departments and institutions should:

Set clear standards for language competencies for undergraduate majors.

Establish foreign-language requirements (or levels of competence) for
undergraduate majors in other fields.

Establish language requirements in doctoral programs and apply those
skills in research.

Enhance and reward graduate student training in language teaching.

Promote faculty learning of new languages.

Promote alliances with educators who teach kindergarten through 12th grade.

Seek out heritage speakers and design curricula to meet their special needs.

Develop programs to meet the large need for graduates trained in
translation and interpretation.

Promote study abroad as an essential component of language education.

The overarching goal of language education, the report says, should be
"educated speakers who have deep translingual and transcultural

A possible model for defining transcultural understanding, it says,
would be "the ability to comprehend and analyze the cultural
narratives that appear in every kind of expressive form -- from
essays, fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, humor, advertising,
political rhetoric, and legal documents to performance, visual forms,
and music." The report stresses the role of interdisciplinary courses,
"focused, for instance, on a period, an issue, or a literary genre."
Such courses would be taught in English by a team of faculty members
and could be augmented by credit-bearing discussion modules taught in
the target language.

"In addition to attracting majors from other disciplines, such
interdisciplinary team-taught courses would encourage learning
communities, forge alliances among departments, and counter the
isolation and marginalization that language and literature departments
often experience on American campuses." The report comes as
institutions have been coming under growing pressure to make their
education more global. "We're seeing a lot of change in what students
want," said Ms. Van Deusen-Scholl. As opposed to earlier generations
who may have viewed foreign language study as an avenue to
appreciation of non-English literature, students now often aspire to
international careers, she said.

A number of institutions have responded with courses designed to meet
specific career goals, like medical Spanish and business Chinese. But
those are mostly isolated initiatives, the report says.

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