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Sustaining "Sputnik Moments"

Sustaining "Sputnik Moments"
December 29, 2006

Foreign language study in the United States has had many a “Sputnik moment,” as H. Jay Siskin, a French instructor at Cabrillo College, in California, put it -- that is, a moment that reveals an economic or military weakness and has been used as a call to arms to strengthen, among other things, language education.

Both World Wars, September 11, the Sputnik launch itself ... all served to stimulate federal investment in language instruction, Siskin argued, describing, for instance, an urgent call to organize the study of Russian language in 1915 before the moment “slipped away.” But as Siskin, who is writing a book on language instruction in higher education in the 20th century, pointed out, “Somehow it always seems that the momentum is lost.”

The theme of erratic government investment and the need for a sustained, coherent approach to support foreign language instruction was a common thread in panel discussions conducted by language instructors Thursday at the Modern Language Association's annual convention in Philadelphia. In many ways, the day's discussions served as a juicy prelude to a much-anticipated session this morning when members of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Language are expected to highlight their research into possible solutions to the problems being raised across the board. “This is the riddle; tomorrow is the solution,” Michael E. Geisler, of Middlebury College, said when introducing a panel discussion Thursday on “The Scramble for Languages: What Have We Learned about Readiness.”

Among the highlights from panels on foreign language education Thursday:

  • Sini Prosper Sanou of the State University of New York at Stony Brook discussed the tension between “crisis driven” and “now-oriented” calls for language acquisition and the need to look at languages as universal tools in a session titled “Language Policy during Globalization.” Sanou, an assistant professor of French, also observed that students on average are graduating from college with lesser foreign language skills than they have upon entering, in part a result of the fact that colleges often have entrance requirements for foreign language learning but lack graduation requirements. “For the rest of their college career, they have all the time they want to forget it,” said Sanou, who argued that language instructors need to do a better job of integrating their subjects across the curriculum and team-teaching with professors from other disciplines.
  • Several panelists also discussed the need for greater cooperation within disciplines. For instance, Scott G. McGinnis, an academic adviser and associate professor at the Defense Language Institute, pointed out that in his rapidly growing discipline, Chinese, “There are a lot of players, but not a lot of cooperation.” Offering one model, Laurel Rasplica Rodd, a professor of Japanese at the University of Colorado at Boulder, described an effort by Japanese instructors to consistently revisit and redevelop a strategic plan for instruction of the language every two years.
  • In the discussion on readiness, panelists offered a number of strategies to ensure colleges are prepared to adapt to shifting, politically motivated language needs while at the same time developing sustainable educational systems that will stay in place after the moment of crisis has passed. Among the suggestions offered by two Georgetown University faculty members -- Sylvia Önder, who teaches Turkish, and Karin C. Ryding, who teaches Arabic -- are a need to share resources, to create programs with the flexibility both to absorb increases and drops in enrollment, and to ensure proper quality-control measures are in place during any time in which foreign language instruction is suddenly spurred by, for instance, one of those Sputnik moments.

 

 

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