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Essay on foreign language competency of new Ph.D.s in languages

Failing the French Test

January 23, 2012

I recently had the enlightening experience of participating in three full days of hiring interviews that my department was conducting for a tenure-track position in French at the Modern Language Association convention in Seattle.  Over 200 people had submitted applications for the position — an assistant professorship at a Research I university — and of those 200, we interviewed slightly over 20 either at the MLA or (if the candidate was not planning to be in Seattle) via Skype.

Unfortunately, we had to exclude eight of the people we interviewed at the MLA because their French language skills simply weren’t good enough.

Yes, that’s right: these people had applied for a position as assistant professor of French, but when my colleague in French started interviewing them it quickly became clear that their French left more than a little to be desired. And this even though some of them came to us with recommendation letters talking about their “flawless” French.

It's fairly typical in an interview for a position like this to test candidates' language skills. And indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to me. I don’t think it’s asking too much that an assistant professor of French actually be able to speak French at a superior level. And here "superior" is not just a vague or imprecise description. It's a category that is precisely described in the proficiency guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Nor does it seem unreasonable to me to expect candidates for such a position to have worked to eliminate the most egregious aspects of an American accent, such as American "r"s or "l"s or diphthongs. After all, how will such people be able to teach their future students to eliminate their American accents and sound more "French" if they haven’t succeeded in doing so themselves?

And so, inevitably, in most such job interviews there comes a moment when, after wide-ranging discussions of the candidate’s fascinating research and well-thought-out, innovative approach to teaching, one colleague will turn to the candidate and continue the discussion in the foreign language that the candidate is proposing to teach — in this case, French. One hopes that the transition will not be too jarring, and that the topics discussed will have some relation to previous topics, but the real goal is simply this: to test the candidate’s foreign language skills.

Whether the candidate does well or badly at the language test, all the members of the committee (should, and in our case all of us, I think, did) try to keep a poker face and continue the interview to its prearranged conclusion (i.e., not put an end to the interview and ask the candidate to leave the room and stop wasting their time because he or she has failed the language test). Why? Because it's nicer that way, and it allows everybody to save face.  And so one goes through the motions, even though one generally knows after the first few sentences in the foreign language have been spoken that one is not going to be hiring the candidate in question.

I went through this on the other side of the interview table two decades ago and seem to have passed the language test, given that I am now a professor of German. But I remember that when I was a job candidate all those many years ago it sometimes went the other way: I would be asked to speak in German and would sometimes notice that my interlocutors either could not or would not speak German themselves. I well remember an interview with German faculty members at a major undergraduate institution who asked me (in English) to speak about my research in German, and who, after I was finished with my German spiel, thanked me (in English) and moved on with the interview (in English), never once having responded to my German — in German. The only conclusion I could draw was that these professors of German could not actually speak the language they were professing. Maybe they were looking to hire a faculty member in German who actually spoke the language. (On the other hand, I wasn’t hired for that position, so who knows?  Maybe they were looking for someone who didn’t speak the language, and perhaps I failed the language test by "passing" it.)

I am not a French professor, but I do speak and read some French at about an intermediate-mid or intermediate-high level on the ACTFL proficiency scale. In spite of my relative lack of proficiency in French, even I was able to hear pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary mistakes on the part of some of our candidates. I figured that if even I, with my inadequate French, was able to hear some of these mistakes, the interviews must be torture for the colleague in French who was doing the language testing (and yes, at the end of the third day of interviews she was literally rolling on the floor in agony after the last candidate had left the room).

All of this was rather shocking to me. I certainly expected that we would have to exclude two or three candidates on the basis of inadequate language skills, but it never occurred to me that we might actually have to exclude fully a third of the candidates, and almost half of the non-native speakers. (The native French speakers, obviously, passed the language test.)

What this suggests to me is that some graduate programs around the country, whatever else they might be doing for good or ill, are egregiously failing to give their students the language training they need. Granted, basic language training should not, ideally, be part of a graduate education; one ought to be able to assume that anybody admitted to a graduate program in a foreign language already speaks that foreign language fluently, and that one can immediately move to complex discussions (in English, of course) of diasporic identity and transnational culture with them.

But hélas, this is obviously not the case. And so, at the very least, graduate programs ought to make sure that any students whose language skills are not up to snuff get remedial language education and, ideally, spend a year or two in a foreign country where the relevant language is spoken.

Granted, one would presumably prefer to get right to issues of theory and research with them; such issues are so much more interesting than the banalities of whether someone can or cannot speak a foreign language. And yes, it may be awkward to tell graduate students that their language skills are inadequate, but believe me, it’s much worse to let them go through a graduate program for six or seven years, write a dissertation, tell them their research is great, and then send them onto the job market with inadequate skills. That is truly unkind.  Because I don’t think that my own university is the only institution in the country that insists that a French professor ought to actually be able to speak French.

Bio

Stephen Brockmann is professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the German Studies Association.

 

 

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