Data show small improvements in accessibility of course materials


Data from 700,000 classes show digital course materials have gotten only slightly more accessible to students with disabilities over the last five years.

Undergraduate foreign language requirements aren't particularly effective (essay)

Learning and Languages

The concern over rising tuition has led people to increasingly evaluate higher education in terms of a return on investment. And that, in turn, has been a source of anxiety among faculty members, especially those in the humanities.

Could it be that tackling computer science or organic chemistry has a higher return in postgraduate salary trajectories than a major in French literature? Further, why is it that so many colleges and universities require that their undergraduates demonstrate some level of proficiency in a foreign language? This persisting language requirement for graduation piqued my curiosity. Typically any language qualifies for the requirement: Urdu, Navajo, Spanish and, in increasing popularity, American Sign Language.

Most colleges and universities are clear about the underlying rationale for their language requirement. Take for example, Columbia University’s undergraduate requirement.

The foreign language requirement forms part of Columbia College’s mission to prepare students to be tomorrow’s conscientious and informed citizens. Knowledge of another’s language and literature is the most important way to begin to know a country and people. The study of a foreign language:

  • Sensitizes students to world cultures, simultaneously making them aware of their own culture within that context;
  • Introduces students to the differences in structure, grammar and syntax that distinguish two languages, and to the intimate links between language and cultural meaning; and
  • Contributes to the development of students’ critical, analytical and writing skills.

Yet the question remains whether the requisite student investment in foreign language proficiency matches up meaningfully with the intended intellectual outcomes.

Most language requirements use the phrase “language proficiency” as the requirement’s goal and assess it by a language exam or passing grades in several semesters of beginning or intermediate college-level language instruction. At those levels, language classes and exams by their nature focus on vocabulary, conjugation and syntax. So it is unlikely that the cultural issues associated with the requirement are often meaningfully addressed. They could be, but that would require two or perhaps three or four times the commitment in classroom hours. That is simply not practical, given all the other important breadth and skill requirements of most undergraduate programs.

And, as far, as I can tell the question of whether elementary foreign language learning enhances students’ critical, analytical and writing skills in their native language has not been seriously researched. I contacted a number of academic foreign language scholars and staff members at a variety of associations that promote foreign language learning in postsecondary education to ask about research. As best as I can determine from the responses I have received, other than a few fragmentary statistics, the question about language learning outcomes remains largely unanswered.

We do have some estimates on language proficiency. By one estimate, less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a United States classroom. Another study estimated the proportion at a little less than 2 percent. A third calculated 10 percent. These are difficult estimates to make because they are based on gross numbers of language students and separate surveys of adults reporting on their language skills.

Yet they may be realistic, given the views of some in the language community. Eckhard Kuhn-Osius, a professor of German language at Hunter College in New York and chair of the American Association of Teachers of German Testing Commission, asserted in a study in 2001 that “practically no student who fulfills a language requirement of two, three or four semesters will have acquired professionally relevant language proficiency.”

Given the lack of hard evidence in the scholarly literature about language-proficiency outcomes, I decided to undertake my own independent survey of American four-year college graduates through Survata, which conducts online survey studies. We know that 84 percent of American adults have some form of online access, and the number is probably well above 90 percent for college graduates, so an online study seemed appropriate. (Traditional telephone surveys have response rates under 10 percent, so the alternatives to an online survey may actually be more problematic.) Survata uses a variety of techniques to provide a census-representative sample with a sampling accuracy of plus or minus about 3 percent for samples of 1,000 respondents. (In this case 1,003.)

The Study’s Results

Here’s what the survey revealed. Of this sample of American college graduates, 61 percent reported that, when they enrolled, their institution had no language requirement, and 39 percent reported that a foreign language requirement was in place. Students at institutions where it was required took an average of three semesters of a foreign language, while those at institutions that didn’t require it took a little more than one semester. Clearly, requirements make a big difference in exposure to foreign language instruction, but there appears to be significant language study in nonrequirement institutions, which may be taken to be a good sign. Exactly half of the respondents who have graduated recently reported their institution had a foreign language requirement. Older respondents, however, were more likely to report that they had no language requirement when they were students, which may mean there were fewer requirements decades ago or that it was more difficult to recall the rules in force back then.

We turn to a key question: What is the relationship between adult foreign language proficiency and the number of semesters of study, and how does the existence of a language requirement interact with these dynamics? First, let’s take a look at the distribution of self-reported levels of current adult fluency among those who studied foreign language in college.

Bar chart showing five categories of fluency. 1: Able to use the language fluently and accurately (11% of respondents). 2. Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements (13%). 3. Able to use questions and answers for simple topics and basic needs (29%). 4. Understanding limited to occasional isolated words and phrases (39%). 5. Can't remember a single word (8%).If we consider the top two categories as a reasonable level of language proficiency, we find that, among those in this sample of college graduates who studied foreign language in college, a little less than a quarter (24 percent) are proficient. But if we exclude those who were language majors or who reported that the language was spoken extensively in their home or community, the level of proficiency drops by half to 12 percent. Interestingly, the number of those who said they were proficient but didn’t major in a language or speak it at home was 15 percent in institutions without language requirements and 10 percent in institutions with language requirements.

Thus, statistically speaking, the foreign language requirement appears to have no meaningful effect on the language proficiency of graduates from those institutions. All of the variation in proficiency is explained by students opting for majoring or minoring in language study and/or exposure to the language in their home or community. Males had modestly higher levels of language proficiency than females, older respondents modestly lower than younger ones.

Another key question is the impact of language study in college on cultural sensitivity and global awareness. I had limited opportunity to assess those dimensions in our short survey, so I asked simply if the respondents were inclined to seek out or to avoid foreign cultures and languages. The percentage reporting from institutions requiring language instruction that they seek out foreign cultures and languages was 23 percent and from nonrequirement institutions it was 20 percent -- a difference small enough that it cannot be distinguished from sampling error.

It seemed possible that a language requirement could have a boomerang effect -- turning some students away from further language learning. That turned out not to be the case at all. Fully 45 percent of the respondents volunteered that they enjoyed language learning (the same percentage for requirement and nonrequirement institutions) and only 9 percent noted that they disliked language learning. And, again, we found no significant difference for requirement and nonrequirement institutions.

Such complex phenomena as critical thinking skills and cultural or linguistic sensitivity are not easily assessed. Part of the challenge is a lack of clarity about what educators mean when they use such terms. The increased attention to learning outcomes and systematic assessment in higher education may bring some greater definition to these iconic and potentially overused educational catchphrases.

What conclusions might we draw from this preliminary analysis? It appears that the language requirement does not generate a boomerang effect, turning students off or leading them to avoid foreign cultures languages and literatures. But it appears, as well, perhaps as should be expected, that three or four semesters of language instruction, required or otherwise, does not make much of a difference in adult linguistic capacities.

My view is that the current tradition of language-proficiency requirements has it backward. It requires the study of foreign language vocabulary and grammar under a potentially false pretense that exposure of a few semesters leads to cultural and linguistic sensitivity and critical thinking skills.

My proposal is that colleges and universities should start with courses focusing on globalization and cultural diversity, reinforced by study abroad opportunities, which will generate a natural demand for foreign language instruction as part of a more globally oriented curriculum. We should set aside bureaucratic requirements and instead focus our attention on motivating students’ intellectual pursuits with a curriculum that takes outcomes and assessment seriously.

W. Russell Neuman is a professor of media technology at New York University’s Steinhardt School and author of The Digital Difference: Media Technology and the Theory of Communication Effects (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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Intercultural perspectives and the study of languages should inform the academic content of many disciplines (essay)

Learning and Languages

Those of us who teach and research in departments of world languages engage in work that spans the globe. We are multilingual, multicultural and interdisciplinary. But in the current climate of utility, we are struggling to prove our relevance, even as our universities espouse the values of internationalization and cultural competence.

A recent publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century,” reports on this contradiction, concluding that the United States needs more people to speak more than just English: “There is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in human history.”

How did we get here? We can point to three recent trends in postsecondary education that have negatively impacted the study of world languages in significant ways.

First, the number of colleges and universities across the nation that require language study has dropped from 53 percent to 37 percent. Perhaps accordingly, enrollments in languages other than English between 2009 and 2013 dropped at a precipitous rate, a decline that includes French and Spanish alike. As a result, at a growing number of colleges and universities, language departments are ceasing to offer majors, with surprising losses at institutions situated in heritage-learner communities (Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and the University of Southern Maine dropped the French major, for instance).

Second, to better understand this statistical plummet, we can look to current trends in American higher education, where the very goals of learning are up for debate. As Robert Thompson has written, the notion of higher education as knowledge in the service of society is being contrasted with, and sometimes replaced by, a neoliberal model that connects college education to economic needs, positing students as consumers. Fields of study are marketed based on their use in “the real world,” and our students feel pressured to prioritize job placement over intellectual exploration.

In such an environment, a biomedical engineering degree is appealing because of its clear path to a job in biomedical engineering. A French degree, on the other hand, does not lead to a job “in French.” Students with second-language majors must be resourceful self-marketers who are able to position themselves for a variety of jobs that will value their skills in critical thinking, teamwork and cross-cultural communication.

And finally, related to degree professionalization is the renewed focus on STEM education. In response to shortages in STEM-related disciplines, federal and state governments have increased funding for those fields, incentivizing programming in K-12 schools through postsecondary institutions. In the current financially challenged climate, however, public figures have unfortunately positioned STEM in opposition to the humanities. As Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin recently remarked about his state budget allocations, “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” That kind of divisive discourse elevates STEM by disparaging French studies, implying that education is a zero-sum game.

Comments like Bevin’s mischaracterize our field entirely, casting it as a solitary intellectual pursuit rather than as a communicative practice that grapples with real-world issues. Our French literature colleagues link 18th-century travel narratives to today’s mass migrations, and Molière’s theater to political satire. These approaches help students decipher contemporary concerns through a historical lens, offering proffered solutions to consider, value or reject. Our colleagues also teach courses in translation and interpretation, in business, and in community health. Comments like Bevin’s -- and the ensuing media attention they garner -- ignore the breadth of our collective offerings and attempt to remove them entirely from the politically charged bargaining space of public education.

Meeting Students Where They Are

What are we to do in the face of this news-media discourse, knowing that it has a significant effect on parents and policy makers, students and administrators? Do we dig in our heels and defend the study of Balzac and Cervantes? Or do we focus exclusively on languages for specific purposes, or LSP, which addresses immediate and specific industry needs, to align ourselves with STEM fields? Such binary choices create internal conflicts and can pit colleagues against each other in battles for student enrollment.

Another approach is to take some of our languages out of language departments and place them throughout our campuses, making us more visible and valuable within the university at large. Serving students across various disciplines, Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum, or CLAC, offers a way to help reconcile what has become a polarizing debate. On the one hand, CLAC’s focus on integrating languages and cultures across a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts aligns with recent trends in higher education. CLAC courses help students gain discourse competence for work in fields like global health and environmental sciences, demonstrating the value and utility of language study. An introduction to a public policy course, for instance, offers a discussion section in Mandarin that explores policy briefs and case studies from China. Perhaps as a result of this applied learning, the CLAC consortium has expanded to include 25 institutional members, with an increasing number of independent programs.

On the other hand, unlike courses that focus specifically on developing skills for the workplace, CLAC engages students by exploring culturally specific solutions to real-world issues, thus mirroring the intellectual values of the traditional university model. Students in a global health Hindi CLAC explore the underlying beliefs and behaviors that are associated with health disparities in India, while students in a public policy Spanish CLAC analyze case studies of Latinx voting trends. Community-based learning can be incorporated easily into CLAC, further showcasing applications of language acquisition. At its core, the CLAC movement demonstrates that intercultural perspectives can and should inform the teaching of academic content in many disciplines, making language study relevant -- even indispensable.

The current climate of utility poses a challenge for the humanities -- and for world languages in particular. For our departments and the interdisciplinary, international work that we undertake, we must show that we play an important role in student learning and development. As the American Academy’s recent report suggests, “Ultimately, it is up to all of us -- parents, students, educators, policy makers and businesses -- to make language learning a valued national priority.” And in order to survive, and even thrive, we must be visible.

That does not mean giving up the intellectual work of our field, but it does mean that we must meet students where they are, both mentally (worried about job prospects) and physically (not solely in our departments). By embedding language across our campuses, CLAC’s expanded opportunities can help us claim our space in strategic ways and provide invaluable benefits to students, our institutions and indeed the world.

Deb S. Reisinger directs the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum initiative at Duke University, where she is an assistant professor of the practice in the department of romance studies. Her current research focuses on community-based language learning.

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