"But Where Does That Leave French?" (language teaching in US)
dzo at bisharat.net
Sat Jul 12 23:07:51 UTC 2008
Tis item from last May may be of interest (just came across it)
Inside Higher Ed
But Where Does That Leave French?
By H. Stephen Straight
The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2008 the International
Year of Languages. Koïchiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, has said:
Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals
and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of
progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship
between the global and the local context. To achieve these goals, cultures
and languages can and should play a central role at all levels of education.
The United States, in particular, must abandon its exclusive short-range,
9/11-sparked, tactical emphasis on just-in-time, emergency-responsive study
of specific languages to meet economic challenges and security crises. In
its place, the U.S. needs to establish a longer-range strategic emphasis on
the study of cultures, and widespread educational use of languages, to
prevent such crises from occurring in the first place.
How do we achieve these goals? Should we restore and expand upon the pattern
of high school and college language instruction that existed in my youth,
when four times as many college students studied foreign languages? Well,
yes, but the world has changed since then. The worlds children, including
children in the U.S., need higher levels of competency and competency in a
larger number of world languages than have ever appeared in any countrys
The present essay lays out a position to which I have gradually and
grudgingly been arriving over my nearly 50-year career as a student and
teacher of languages and cultures. I was spurred to express this position
publicly by recent global and national initiatives in the area of language
education but also by an e-mail I received nearly a year ago:
I teach French, Spanish, and an Intro to World Languages class at a public
middle school in a rural community in Virginia. I am eager to understand the
current Foreign Language trends in the U.S. and am puzzled by the decreasing
enrollment in specifically French classes. I am trying to promote the
necessity of French as an essential international language, but is my
thinking back in the dark ages?
I understand the rise of Spanish in light of the USAs changing
demographics, and the wave of Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese with regard to
global commerce and homeland security, BUT WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE FRENCH? Do
you believe the need for French in the American classroom will continue to
decline and become obsolete?
What follows is my latest, fullest response to this question, which I have
been pondering ever since.
French was the first language I studied and the one I studied to the highest
level academically. My Francophile father spent a year in Tours after he
retired to enhance his fluency in the language; my mother chose French to
fulfill her doctoral-level language requirement; my sister majored in
French; and I have cited and written about French scholarship in my
publications as an academic linguist. Despite having studied a half dozen
other languages since, and lived for nearly a year and half in Mexico using
Spanish (and Yucatec Maya) daily, plus another year using Romanian in
Bucharest, French is still the language other than English in which I am the
most literate, however outdated and rusty my knowledge.
Despite this deep-seated allegiance, I do regretfully conclude that the
recent and projected continuing decline of French as one of the most widely
studied languages in the U.S. is both inevitable and appropriate. My late
father would be distressed to hear me say this, but, as director of
international admissions at the University of Michigan in the 50s and 60s,
he probably saw it coming himself.
Last Novembers Modern Language Association enrollment update provides an
authoritative overview of where languages currently stand in U.S. higher
education. Although college modern-language course enrollments as a
proportion of total enrollments are still little better than half of what
they were in the 1960s (8.6 percent in 2006 compared with 16.5 in 1965),
they have grown steadily along with college enrollments overall during the
last decade (from 7.7 percent to 8.6), and world language demographics and
increased global awareness have shifted college-level language enrollments
heavily away from the previous near-monopoly of the Big Three of previous
generations (French, German, Spanish). Although Spanish increased its share
from 32 to 52 percent. French went from 34 percent to 13 percent, while
German dropped from 19 to 6 percent.
In the last near-decade (1998-2006), although the Big Three shared in the
overall growth in language enrollments, their shares continued to decrease:
Spanish slipped from 55.0 to 52.2 (a 5 percent decrease), French from 16.7
to 13.1 (a 22 percent decrease), and German from 7.5 to 6.0 (a 20 percent
decrease). Sizeable increases, on the other hand, were experienced by
Italian (from 4.1 to 5.0, a 23 percent increase), Japanese (from 3.6 to 4.2,
a 17 percent increase), Chinese (from 2.4 to 3.3, a 38 percent increase),
Arabic (from 0.5 to 1.5, a 200 percent increase), and Other languages
(from 1.5 to 2.1, a 40 percent increase). The worlds languages still lag
behind the Big Three, but they are gradually supplanting them in the
These shifts in student demand will almost certainly produce major shifts in
the allocation of resources for the study of specific languages in the
coming years. Indeed, some institutions have already experienced a loss of
critical mass in enrollment for German. Most recently the University of
Southern California has announced the elimination of its department of
German, which lost its doctoral program a decade ago and in 2008 has only 10
undergraduate majors and 10 minors taught by three tenured faculty and three
We can expect such dislocations to increase in the coming years as the more
populous of the worlds languages take their place in the college
curriculum, but the prospects for achieving college-level proficiency in any
languages will remain small in the absence of the development of language
proficiency in secondary school. In light of these considerations, the most
desirable outcome of the rise in the diversity and popularity of world
languages at the college level would include two major changes in elementary
and secondary education and set the stage for a new level of importance for
languages in all fields of postsecondary education.
The first K-12 change would be a widespread initiative to mandate the
mastery of English and a language other than English (LOTE), in K-6
education, and the continued meaningful use of that LOTE throughout the 7-12
curriculum. Spanish is the obvious first choice of LOTE for most schools
because the U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
Languages other than Spanish (LOTS) would present themselves in many locales
and neighborhoods: French in upstate New York, Polish in near-north Chicago,
Mandarin in San Franciscos Chinatown, etc.
To get an idea of how numerous such locally-significant languages might be
nationwide, visit the Modern Language Association Language Map Data Center.
Based on official 2000 and 2006 Census figures, this site provides
information regarding the numbers of speakers of literally scores of
languages from location to location across the U.S.
Regardless of the choice of language, high school students in the U.S. or
college-bound students, at any rate ought to spend at least half an
academic year in a school where a LOTE is the primary language of
instruction. In the case of Spanish, the default K-12 LOTE, this study
abroad might best occur in Latin America. Exchange programs for both
students and teachers could make this a win-win bilingual educational effort
for our Latin American neighbors and, for LOTS, visitors from other nations.
Family-to-family home-stay exchanges could bring the Americas and the world
together in a very intimate and mutually rewarding, to say nothing of
The second desirable change in K-12 education would occur in grade seven.
Having become functionally bilingual in English and Spanish (or some other
language) by the end of elementary school, children should be encouraged and
college-bound students required (and find it relatively easy) to begin study
of a third language. The available choices would rightly vary in accordance
with personal, local, regional, national, and global needs, resources, and
opportunities. The goal would be to have a large majority of high school
graduates functioning at a high level of literacy in English and another
language (typically Spanish) and at an intermediate level in a third
On this plan, which draws major inspiration from a 1996 proposal for
education in France by Claude Hagège, individual learners in college and the
workplace would bring additional languages into their repertoires as a
function of chosen career paths and intellectual interests. Equally affected
by this obviously audacious plan, college and university curricula would of
course need to include a much wider range of course work in world languages
To reach the full range of fields of study, colleges would also need to
employ the proven methods developed by Cultures and Languages Across the
Curriculum (CLAC) practitioners to enable students to acquire and make
ubiquitous meaningful use of their multilingual skills and international
knowledge. Examples of CLAC methods include non-language courses taught in a
LOTE, add-on LOTE trailers or course modules, and study groups in which
students in an otherwise English-only course pursue substitute assignments
employing LOTE materials (see the CLAC Consortium Web site for details).
To encourage multilingual educational initiatives of the above sorts, local,
state, and federal agencies, as well as employers of all kinds, could offer
incentives and rewards for the study and meaningful curricular use of
high-need languages at all educational levels in all fields of study and in
all lines of work in the global economy.
So where does that leave French? Clearly French would survive the
above-described process, but with only a fraction of its current share of
total language-learning enrollments, and with a much broader coverage of the
many dialects, postcolonial cultural traditions, and socioeconomic
circumstances that exist in 21st century Francophonie. The French-speaking
world uses not only European French but also the Frenches of the Canadian
Québecois and of the numerous former French colonies in Africa and on many
islands around the world. Spanish, though instructors also need to recognize
Spanish dialect diversity, is probably the only one of the Big Three that
will remain in the top 10 in U.S. education by the end of the 21st century.
Likely members by then include Arabic, Bengali, Hindi/Urdu, Indonesian,
Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Turkish.
Whatever our language choices and their respective global ranking, we can
hope that a large number of languages find their way into our K-21 curricula
(and lifelong-learning options) in response to the twin forces of economic
globalization and cultural internationalization.
Is the above merely the hope-induced pipe dream of an ivory-tower academic
out of touch with political and educational realities? I hope not. Playing
to the catchwords of the day, I can cite the priorities of global commerce
(U.S. economic competitiveness) and homeland security (monitoring terrorist
communications and communicating with non-English-speaking allies and
enemies) in support of the above initiatives. Especially at the federal
level, though states and municipalities have also expressed support for
greater language study in our post-9/11 era, we find many examples of urgent
calls for enhanced linguistic competency in the service of these priorities.
In June 2004 the Department of Defense, with cooperation from the
Departments of State and Education, sponsored the first-ever National
Language Policy Conference. Representatives of government at all levels,
industry, and K-16 academe endeavored to define the full range of needs and
describe the resources necessary to meet our societys needs for greater
intercultural and global knowledge and skills, with a focus on the expansion
of linguistic competencies. This proved to be but the first in a number of
federal, state, and local initiatives, running from the establishment of
tens of two-way immersion elementary schools, mostly in English and Spanish,
to the recent Senator Paul Simon Foundation legislation, aimed to increase
the number of college students studying abroad by a factor of four in the
next 10 years.
Encouraging widespread two-way bilingual K-12 education, in which native
speakers of English and other languages learn to use each others languages,
and vastly expanding the range of languages taught in U.S. schools and
colleges may sound preposterous in the face of popular negativism about
increased immigration and the alleged (and largely imaginary) refusal of
immigrants to learn English (when they are in fact giving up their native
languages at least as quickly as previous generations of immigrants).
However, surveys of college-bound high school students and their parents
have increasingly revealed their desire that a college education include
language study and time abroad in order for graduates to compete effectively
in the global economy.
The recently released UCLA Higher Education Research Institute Cooperative
Institutional Research Program survey data show yet a further increase in
college freshman interest in learning about other world cultures, rising
from 43.2 percent in 2002 to 52.3 percent in 2007. College students come
desirous but ill-prepared to study languages and cultures but find the
current college curriculum unresponsive to, and even incompatible with,
In short, both the population at large and leadership in virtually all
arenas have come to realize that the solution to global problems, including
the establishment of a sustainable new world order (do you remember that
benign vision, so quickly displaced by a New American Imperium?) in which
all the worlds peoples can live in peace and attain prosperity, depends
upon increases in international understanding and coöperation of a sort that
only widespread multilingualism and intercultural interaction can produce.
Call it public diplomacy or global competency or inclusive humanism; our
goal should be to make everyone in the world safer, healthier, and better
educated about each others shared values, diverse lifeways, and unique
cultural achievements. We have had enough of xenophobic fear-mongering,
hypocritical ethnocentrism, and Doomsday rhetoric. If the worst scenarios do
indeed come to pass, it will not be because they are unavoidable but because
we have diverted too many of our resources into preparing for those
pessimistic scenarios and too few into warding them off.
A competitive, power-driven view of the worlds future becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy that, in the end, no one can survive. A
cooperative, posterity-driven view of the future includes the ubiquitous
study of world cultures and languages, and use of this acquired knowledge
and skill to build international bridges and address global problems. To
paraphrase an aphorism about education penned in 1920 by H.G. Wells, human
history has become more and more a race between catastrophe and
H. Stephen Straight is professor of anthropology and of linguistics, and
vice provost for undergraduate education and international affairs, at the
State University of New York at Binghamton. He is a member of the executive
committee of the Association of International Education Administrators.
© Copyright 2008 Inside Higher Ed
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