Broader Vision for Languages

MLA issues call to reform the undergraduate major, moving it beyond literary study and rethinking the traditional division of labor in teaching.
May 24, 2007

Declaring the traditional model for undergraduate foreign language instruction to be "rigid and hierarchical," not to mention outdated and narrow, the Modern Language Association is today issuing a call for major reforms.

The MLA created a special committee in 2004 to study the future of language education and its report, being issued today, is in many ways unprecedented for the association in that it is urging departments to reorganize how languages are taught and who does the teaching. In general, the critique of the committee is that the traditional model has started with basic language training (typically taught by those other than tenure-track faculty members) and proceeded to literary study (taught by tenure-track faculty members). The report calls for moving away from this "two tiered" system, integrating language study with literature, and placing much more emphasis on history, culture, economics and linguistics -- among other topics -- of the societies whose languages are being taught.

While the focus of the report is on undergraduate education, its implications go well beyond that topic. The report raises issues about academic staffing. In attacking the two-tiered system of instruction, the MLA calls for departments to give adjuncts and lecturers more of a role in the curriculum, while not letting tenure-track faculty members stay away from the first parts of the language major. In addition, the report envisions a different sort of graduate education to prepare professors to teach in this way, and calls on departments in the humanities and social sciences to take language requirements for doctoral students more seriously.

Taken together, the report says that the definition of successful language training should change. "The language major should be structured to produce a specific outcome: educated speakers who have deep translingual and transcultural competence," the report says. "Advanced language training often seeks to replicate the competence of an educated native speaker, a goal that post-adolescent learners rarely reach. The idea of translingual and transcultural competence, in contrast, places value on the ability to operate between languages. Students are educated to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language. They are also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture. They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans -- that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA and a Spanish professor by training, acknowledged that some have wondered if the association wasn't "rattling the cages" by exploring these issues. Feal acknowledged that the changes being called for wouldn't be easy for everyone, and that some would be controversial. But she said that in the wake of 9/11, there is growing consensus about the importance of language instruction, about the inadequacy of American students' language skills, and a willingness to consider new models.

In critiquing the current standard approach, the MLA panel linked the curricular norms and the organizational norms of departments. The "narrow model" of curriculum is generally one in which "a two- or three-year language sequence feeds into a set of core courses primarily focused on canonical literature." In turn, this division creates one among instructors, with tenure and tenure-track professors teaching literature and others teaching language. "Foreign language instructors often work entirely outside departmental power structures and have little or no say in the education mission of their department," the report says.

A majority of first-year language courses -- and an overwhelming majority at doctoral-granting departments -- are not taught by tenured or tenure-track professors.

Who Teaches First-Year Language Courses?

Rank Doctoral-Granting Departments B.A.-Granting Departments
Tenured or tenure-track professors 7.4% 41.8%
Full-time, non-tenure track 19.6% 21.1%
Part-time instructors 15.7% 34.7%
Graduate students 57.4% 2.4%

The MLA report sees such a split in duties as unwise. "While language faculty members are expected to use methodologies that develop students' competencies in reading, writing, and oral expression as preparation for upper-level courses, it is crucial that tenure-line faculty members have a hand in teaching language courses and in shaping and overseeing the content and teaching approaches used throughout the curriculum, from the first year forward. This vision requires departments, in both tenure-track and non-tenure-track searches, to look for instructors who are able to develop and teach broad-based courses aimed at producing the translingual and transcultural competencies described above," the report says.

Language departments -- in addition to redefining the relationship of tenure-track faculty members and other professors -- also should be expanded to include linguists and experts on language acquisition.

While calling on departments to be less hierarchical in teaching assignments, the report also seeks a much broader concept of what should be covered in the language major. Literature would continue to play an important role, but so would other subject areas, in an attempt to "situate language study in cultural, historical, geographic and cross-cultural frames."

The goal of the curriculum for the major should be for students to "achieve enough proficiency in the language to converse with educated native speakers on a level that allows both linguistic exchanges and metalinguistic exchanges (that is, discussion about the language itself)," the report says. Literary study should be part of a broader cultural education that would include different countries and cultures' literature, mass media, history, economics, fashion and cultures, among other topics.

The MLA panel also calls for changes outside of language departments. It urges:

  • The creation of language requirements for undergraduates majoring in fields such as history, anthropology, music, art history, philosophy, sociology and for those preparing for careers in law, medicine and engineering.
  • The enforcement of language requirements in doctoral programs, which have lost some of their requirements and much of their enforcement, the report says.
  • Expansion of efforts to train graduate students on using technology to teach languages.
  • The promotion of efforts for faculty members to learn new languages.

Feal, the MLA's executive director, stressed that the report was not "against literature" but arguing for a "multiplicity of approaches" of which literary study is one part. Now that the report has been published, the MLA plans to work with departments at the undergraduate and graduate level to identify ways to apply these ideas.

Some recommendations may be "a hard sell," Feal said, such as getting departments to enforce language requirements. But she said that "the time is right for this."

The committee members who produced the report are: Michael Geisler, dean of Language Schools and Schools Abroad at Middlebury College; Claire Kramsch, professor of German and foreign language acquisition at the University of California at Berkeley; Scott McGinnis, academic adviser and associate professor at the Defense Language Institute; Peter Patrikis, executive director of the Winston Churchill Foundation; Mary Louise Pratt (chair), Silver Professor and professor of Spanish at New York University; Karin Ryding, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic and Linguistics at Georgetown University; and Haun Saussy, Bird White Housum Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University.


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