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Academe shouldn't automatically call languages other than English 'foreign' (opinion)

Languages stand in as shorthand for nationality in all sorts of official and informal contexts. Some countries have official languages. Many others, the United States included, require some proof of language proficiency for naturalization; we teach and learn “foreign languages” in schools and colleges.

But the association between language and nationality is also arbitrary and vague. Take the case of the film Minari winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Minari tells an archetypally American story: an immigrant family in search of economic prosperity caught between the traditions of the place of origin (South Korea) and the adopted home (Arkansas). Because a substantial part of the dialogue is in Korean, however, the movie was not eligible for the Best Drama award. Its language makes it foreign, despite being an American film and telling an American story.

My point is not to quibble with the award rules that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association sets, which consider foreign any movie with more than 50 percent of its dialogue not in English. Rather it is to note that when it comes to languages, the label “foreign” can be, at best, as meaningless and arbitrary as the 50 percent dialogue rule, and at worst, harmful. If we applied the 50 percent rule to the 22 percent of multilingual households in the latest U.S. Census survey, I suspect casual conversations in many families -- including my own -- would not always pass the foreignness test.

And yet the word "foreign" persists in countless language departments and language centers, in federal programs promoting and funding language learning and instruction, and even in the largest professional organizations for language teachers in the United States, the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL. And that raises the question: Foreign as opposed to what?

We tend to map languages onto discrete national boundaries, as if they matched the neatly colored countries on a world globe or in an atlas. But languages do not lend themselves to precise categorization any more than national boundaries do. Language minorities exist in countries that we strongly associate with a national language. The language of power and colonization in one country can be the minoritized, low-prestige language in its neighbor to the north. And that’s before we even talk about global Englishes and whether English is a foreign language in most of the world at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines foreign as pertaining, characteristic or derived from another country -- as not domestic or native. Any domestic language spoken in the United States, then, is an American language. The linguistic landscapes and soundscapes in big cities and small towns, the music and the television we stream, all belie the foreignness of Korean, Spanish or just about any language you can study on college campuses. What makes them foreign is not their country of origin -- by that measure, English is just as foreign as Spanish -- but the all-or-nothing, ingrained inability to fit any language other than English into the neat box of American identity.

It is true than in teaching language, we distinguish between second and foreign language instruction depending on the context where the learning takes place. The former refers to the acquisition of the target language in a context where that language is commonly spoken -- say, a newly arrived immigrant learning English in the United States. But in most contexts, "foreign" is not a neutral term. We can replace "foreign" with "global," "world" or "international," as many language programs in K-12 and higher ed have done in recent years. But the implication remains the same: if it is not English, then it is not domestic or native; if it is not English, then it is alien.

A Nativist Fantasy

To the extent that language also functions as an oral marker of difference, particularly race, tagging other languages as foreign takes on insidious connotations ranging from discrimination to outright hate. The last five or six years have seen an increase in hate crimes and hate incidents inspired by ethno-nationalist sentiment. From verbal and physical attacks on Spanish speakers to the recent episodes of anti-Asian violence, these attacks victimize those who look and sound different from a nativist fantasy of what Americans look and sound like.

I am by no means suggesting that the acronym ACTFL is hateful, any more than awarding a movie a Golden Globe in the foreign language category is a hate incident. But the rationale for qualifying languages with an othering modifier -- "foreign," "global," "world" -- much like excluding a bilingual film from the Best Drama category, draws from the same ideology that equates American identity exclusively with English and leaves other languages on the outside.

Professional organizations like ACTFL and departments of language and literature can lead the way by dropping the F word, and not just from the letterhead. Spanish, Korean, Russian, Arabic -- those are not just languages spoken in countries whose identifiable monuments grace the covers of language textbooks but also the domestic, native languages of communities around us. We need to stop viewing the languages we teach as only foreign, and start seeing the language practices of those communities as equally worthy of researching, teaching and studying.

When news of Minari’s nomination as a foreign film came out, the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen asked, thinking about the languages that bind immigrant communities in the United States, “When do these languages stop being ‘foreign’?” Unless we start looking at language and identity with greater nuance, American languages -- that is, all except one -- will never reach that point.

Roberto Rey Agudo (@robertoreyagudo) is the language program director of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and was a 2018 Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2021
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A reconsideration of the value of language learning in college (opinion)

Learning a language is one of the most transformative things a student can do during their college years. In nearly two decades of teaching Spanish in American universities, I have never heard a student say, “I wish my parents hadn’t taught me Spanish growing up” or “I wish I had never studied [X or Y language].” The same goes for parents and alumni at admissions and orientations events: languages are the subject they wish they had been able to take or spend more time studying.

The latest report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "The Humanities in American Life," confirms the testimonies that most of us working in language departments have heard over the years. According to the survey report, 49 percent of respondents wish they’d had more opportunities to learn languages, more than perennial major favorites like computer science (45 percent), social sciences (40 percent) or business (39 percent). While attitudes about how much and at what age to start language education vary across the political spectrum, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agree that it is important for children to learn languages other than English.

If only language departments received as much institutional love as those other three disciplines. In comparison, even at institutions that pride themselves on their language and off-campus programs, language departments are starved of resources in the best of times -- dealing with generally lower average salaries for their faculty members, lower rates of tenured faculty and a long list of inequalities.

Being the poor relative on campus is the best-case scenario for language departments, which are usually among the first on the chopping block during every recession. Many programs -- more than 650 between 2013 and 2016 alone -- no longer exist. And since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, other colleges and universities have followed suit. There is no telling what will happen to language departments in financially embattled institutions when the current crisis is over.

No college or university president is going to read the report and say, “Gee, let’s care about languages and put our resources where our lofty mission statements are.” I would love to be wrong about the impact of the report, but if decades of think pieces and books about the “crisis in the humanities” and how valuable its skills are to the job market have not managed to move the needle, no amount of surveys by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences will, either.

To be sure, humanities divisions and language programs in particular have good reason to celebrate the findings in this report. It is unambiguously positive that 63 percent of Americans feel that it is important for children to learn other languages.

It is nevertheless sobering that most survey respondents do not use other languages at work, or that nearly half feel that languages are not necessary for their profession. That is true of respondents with different income levels.

In some ways, I find such responses liberating. For decades, language programs have touted the workforce benefits of learning languages in order to attract students. The Modern Language Association and ACTFL hint in their advocacy materials that college grads with advanced language proficiency go on to make more money. Maybe the AAAS survey report will help us find other ways to advocate for the languages we love without sending the message that job placement and salary are the only measure of languages’ worth.

There are bright spots in the AAAS report. According to the survey summary for foreign languages, “77 percent of Americans who often use a language other than English in the workplace also often use a language with family and friends.” In other words, language use at home and work is higher among members of existing multilingual communities. While very few respondents claim languages are relevant to their jobs, more than 80 percent report interacting with people from other cultures at work. I am willing to bet a modest amount that a good portion of those multicultural co-workers speak other languages as well.

Which brings me to my point. It is time to rethink how we advocate for language education. To be clear, languages are useful in all kinds of professions. I can’t think of any job where speaking more than one language would be a drawback. A recent ACTFL report suggests that an increasing number of employers find languages a valuable skill. But we are not fooling anybody, except perhaps ourselves, when we sell language education as a ticket to better jobs and higher salaries.

What to argue instead? For one, the value of keeping languages other than English alive in multilingual communities. We are a multilingual society with a monolingual complex, and language programs can help with that reality.

Two, the skills you learn in a language class are definitely useful when interacting with neighbors, co-workers, clients, patients and so forth from other cultures. Languages are not just lists of foreign words. In a language classroom, you learn linguistic conventions, sure, but you also develop a multilingual literacy of sorts -- cultural perspective, interpretive skills or a propensity toward collaboration. Finally, with a bit of luck, languages can help students (and a few of our colleagues in more glamorous departments) move beyond monolingual ethnocentrism.

Language learning can be a meaningful part of a student’s education regardless of job placement. Just as we do not expect students to become actuaries to justify the value of learning math, we need to stop presenting outliers -- the Pete Buttigiegs who land prestigious consulting jobs -- as the only measure of the value of language education. Instead, we need to start thinking about multilingual literacy as a core component of living in a multilingual society.

Roberto Rey Agudo (@robertoreyagudo) is the language program director of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and was a 2018 Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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No clear-cut answers for reforming English language instruction

While some institutions are having success speeding up instruction of English as a second language, some instructors are skeptical because of limited information about what models work best.


Leaders of literary journals discuss strategies to face economic challenges

Editors consider how small publications can find support and reach audiences.


The problems with accelerated learning of ESL (opinion)

Last year, California passed legislation that states “that a student enrolled in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction will enter and complete degree and transfer requirements in English within a timeframe of three years.” Seriously?

I have five graduate degrees, three of which I received from Yale University: a master’s in linguistics, a Ph.D. in linguistics and a master’s in philosophy. I also have two other master’s degrees, one in linguistics and another in education. Moreover, I taught ESL at Yuba College in California for 28 years and have taught it for about 43 years in all. I know four languages, and through my 14 years of studying different branches of linguistics, I have some familiarity with the syntax and morphology of a few other languages, as well.

My background leads me to think that the California legislators must have been geniuses to have come up with such a powerful potion. Apparently, they have resolved a 1,000-year-old mystery. They have found the magic tablet: take one a day for three years and you will have mastered English. That seems so much better than the usual six to 10 or more years that it often takes most people to learn and become proficient in another language. Amazing!

Admittedly, if those politicians who came up with the three-year time frame had come to someone like me for an opinion before the bill became law, I, for example, would have asked them to stop the nonsense. Obviously, they have no idea about what language learning means or the effort it takes the human brain to learn another language.

Through the years, I have heard this question repeatedly: “So how long would it take to learn another language?” The shortest answer is, “It depends on so many factors.” Let me briefly explain some of the factors involved in the complex process of language leaning.

Educational background. What is already stored in the brain of the language learner has a great impact on how well and how fast they can learn the target language. That is, when it comes to language learning, one size does not fit all. Student populations differ from college to college. For example, at Yuba College, many of the students come from Mexican or South American villages and have little or no education. Or they are from a war-stricken country like Afghanistan, where many children have had to stay home for years just to be safe, so they don’t have much schooling, either.

In contrast, before coming to Yuba, I taught ESL at the Adult Education Center in New Haven, Conn. There, the majority of my students were the spouses of Yale graduate students, some of whom were my own classmates. Many were highly educated people, and some had Ph.D.s from their own countries. Similarly, before teaching in New Haven, I taught ESL at places like Tehran University and Isfahan University of Technology, where students were the cream of the crop because they had to take one of the most difficult entrance exams in the world to get into those universities.

Can we put all these groups of students in the same category and expect all of them to learn English in three years?

Age difference. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn another language. The best time to learn two or more languages is from birth to when you are about 5 years old. The second stage is from age 5 until puberty. The third stage is from puberty until about 18 or 20 years old. After that, it becomes gradually more difficult -- with, of course, some exceptions.

Family environment. Language learning is generally much more difficult for a student who has children, takes care of an elderly person, has to work while studying or lives in a dysfunctional family environment than it is for a student who is single and has none of those issues.

Economic status. A student who is worried daily about who is going to give them a ride to college, how they are going to earn money to put food on their table or what happens if their financial aid stops if they fail a class cannot learn a language as well as or faster than a student who doesn’t have such concerns.

Linguistic affiliation. There are several language families, each containing many languages. And languages themselves, whether across families or subfamilies, are classified into many types, such as tonal versus nontonal, stress-timed versus nonstress, isolating versus agglutinating, inflectional versus polysynthetic, syllabic versus analytical and so on. The differences among each one of those classifications create various degrees of difficulty for the speakers from different language families or different branches of the same language family when they attempt to learn a second language.

For example, learning English is a lot easier for a German speaker (both languages are from the same branch) than a Farsi speaker (all three belonging to the Indo-European family), while it is much more difficult for a Hmong speaker (from the Hmong-Mien language family, which is, unlike these other languages, a tonal language with seven distinct tones) or for an Arabic speaker (from the Semitic language family). So how can we put all these students in one classroom and expect them to learn English in three years?

Practice and repetition. The number of hours of daily practice and repetition, especially outside of the classroom, is another crucial factor.

When I was 20 years old and an undergraduate freshman at a university in Tehran, I chose to study French as my third language. I loved learning French, and I had already memorized some sentences because of my previous year’s job as a receptionist in a hotel where many French-speaking as well as English-speaking tourists stayed.

The French class met five hours a week, but I was practicing and doing a lot of written homework on my own about three hours a day. I was both a full-time student and working full-time at another hotel as a receptionist. I spent about 26 hours a week, including the classroom hours, practicing French. After three years, I was quite fluent in it, and I could read a simplified version of Les Misérables.

But you obviously cannot equate my case with that of an illiterate Hmong student who was a farmer in the mountains of Laos and is now enrolled in an ESL class in California. It is such a shame and injustice on the part of our educational system to expect this student, and hundreds of others in similar conditions, to learn English in three years!

Now, put some adult learners in a language learning class that meets three to five hours a week. It could take roughly 10,000 hours for them to become fluent in the second language, according to Sarah Elaine Eaton, K. Anders Ericsson and others. So the question now is, does 10,000 hours amount to three years of study? Even if a student studies and practices ESL for 30 hours a week, it would take them about six and a half years to learn English.

Motivation. One of the most important factors in language learning is motivation or determination. In some cases, that factor alone can compensate for most of the others. But the motivation is all internal, not external. The necessity that the person feels to learn the second language is what makes the difference, but that feeling comes in various degrees.

We are lucky that the overwhelming majority of ESL students at community colleges have felt some necessity to learn, and that is exactly why they attend ESL classes. Yet the degree of necessity varies greatly among them, and, in many cases, other factors -- like the ever-present struggle to survive financially -- are a hindrance.

In other words, the necessity to learn feels urgent. For example, when my wife and I came here many years ago, my daughter was 2 and a half years old, and she didn’t know English at all. My wife and I let her play with our neighbors’ children every day, and at home she watched cartoons and children’s shows and movies in English. After about 15 months, she was easily and fully communicating with her American friends in English.

What was her motivation? It was the powerful feeling of necessity and the burning desire to be able to understand and communicate well with her friends; she wanted to be one of them, not an outsider. (I am, of course, aware that age and other factors are involved, as well, especially the fact that all of her necessities were provided for her.)

Other factors. These can include the mental pressures that a person might feel on any day of their lives, including how many courses they are taking in a semester. Another factor is the difference in people’s learning styles. That one alone could affect a teacher’s plans for the entire semester, as it might require creating exercises and lectures that target visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary learners. Generally, a teacher can’t consider all of these styles; therefore, it would definitely have an impact on how well and how fast the students can learn the language.

But in California, a group of politicians have told us that they have found the magic pill: acceleration. In other words, they’ve figured out how everyone can learn English and graduate in three years (or less).

Frankly, a few years ago, when I first heard about the so-called research on acceleration, I didn’t take it seriously. I was certain that when the real educators found out about that project, they would never buy in to that bogus and misguided concept. I am indeed flabbergasted that they have proven me wrong!

I hope you won’t misunderstand me. To me acceleration is of two kinds. One is that which I call “selective acceleration,” while the other is a “blanket acceleration.” The first one is a great service to our society, while the second one is an insult to our educational system and our students.

For as long as I remember, I have implemented selective acceleration on my own. At the end of every semester, I’ve had a few students who excelled to the extent that I was sure they could skip a level, or sometimes two. Therefore, I always encouraged those students to enroll in the higher level the following semester.

As for the blanket or one-size-fits-all model, I hope I have shown that this kind of acceleration will be a disastrous hurricane hitting our colleges and undermining our students’ hopes.

In sum, I feel sympathy for the future of our educational system and our students. I am truly disheartened by the whole shambles, and I am guessing that it will take about 10 years for the educators to wake up, by which time we will have ruined the lives of thousands of students and wasted millions of dollars. I could bring up a similar argument against acceleration in English and math, but I will leave that to the English and math teachers.

I hope the politicians will one day come to their senses and stop relying on the kind of pseudo-research that promotes “magic pill” solutions for complex problems.

Parviz Parsafar recently retired as a professor of English as a second language at Yuba College in California.

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Trial and Error: Building a modern Spanish learning platform

Two foreign-language instructors teamed up to work with a publisher on a digital textbook, but the idea didn't fully blossom until much later.


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