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Not So Foreign Languages

October 5, 2011

West Virginia University announced this semester that it no longer has a department of foreign languages, and that's not because budget cuts eliminated any programs of study. Rather, the university renamed the program; it's now the department of world languages, literatures and linguistics.

Across the country, Grossmont College, a two-year institution in Southern California, changed its foreign languages department to a world languages department this fall as well. These colleges follow others that have made that switch over the last five or so years. In Massachusetts, the Five College Foreign Language Resource Center was renamed the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages.

There are still plenty of departments named "foreign languages" (not to mention many foreign language requirements). But the trend -- which appears to be growing -- is leading to changes in the language used in programs. At Brookhaven College, for instance, the website of the world languages division puts the word "foreign" in quotes when discussing languages other than English. The Modern Language Association used to issue reports on "foreign language enrollments," but more recently has gone with studies of "enrollments of languages other than English." (The MLA does, however, still have its Association of Departments of Foreign Languages.)

The trend is least evident at elite institutions, which are more likely than most of higher education to have separate departments for individual languages or for groups of languages (Asian languages, Slavic languages). As a result, these institutions don't have to place an overall label on groups of languages that may not have a lot in common beyond not being English.

One reason cited by many of the programs that are switching names is that their most popular language -- Spanish -- is widely spoken in the United States. "Spanish is not a foreign language anymore," said Ángel T. Tuninetti, associate professor of Spanish and chair of world languages at West Virginia.

Many educators also do not like the way "foreign" suggests a division of the world into the United States and everyone else.

"There was a feeling that the word 'foreign' could imply different in a negative sense, and that the word 'international' for many reasons has a clearly positive connotation," said Laurie L. Corbin, associate professor of French and chair of the (renamed a few years ago) department of international language and culture studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne.

Academics also noted that languages divisions increasingly include languages that are not remotely foreign. These languages include American Sign Language and English (as taught to those for whom it is not their first language). And other departments include what once could have been a separate comparative literature or linguistics department.

"Part of what you are seeing with the shrinking budgets and shrinking emphasis on the liberal arts is that in a lot of large departments that used to be separate, fields are going into more generalized departments," said Grant Sisk, associate instructional dean at Brookhaven.

And even among faculty members who are teaching languages other than English, there has been a move to stress that they are not just teaching vocabulary, but also culture. With the new names, "there is a recognition that in any language class, you are always teaching culture as well," said Corbin.

Picking an exact name isn't always easy, even once a decision has been made to move away from "foreign." The options may depend on what exactly is grouped in a department. At West Virginia, the department includes Latin as well as classical literature in translation, so those factors ruled out the name "modern languages," which some departments have used. Faculty members felt that linguistics needed to be mentioned. And some discussion of leaving out "world" and going with just "languages, literatures and linguistics" was rejected out of a desire not to create confusion with the English department.

Tuninetti said that the reaction to the new name has been entirely positive, and that the discussions did yield an eventual consensus about what the division should be called.

Similar shifts are taking place in discussions over what to call English instruction outside of the United States and other countries where English is the first language. John Segota, associate executive director of TESOL International Association (formerly Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), said that in that field, the acronym EFL (for English as a foreign language) is seen increasingly as imprecise (outside the United States) when people all over the world use English in some ways.

The newly favored acronyms, he said, are EAL (English as an additional language) and EIL (English as an international language).

 

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