Call to Action on Languages, 10 Years Later

In 2007 the Modern Language Association issued a report calling for major reforms in the teaching of foreign languages. What's happened since?

January 6, 2017
 

PHILADELPHIA -- Ten years after the Modern Language Association issued a report calling for a “transformation” in the curriculum and structure of foreign language programs, to what degree have programs heeded the call?

Lara Lomicka Anderson, a professor of French and applied linguistics at the University of South Carolina, and Gillian Lord, a professor and chair of the Spanish and Portuguese department at the University of Florida, set out to answer that question in a national survey of faculty members and students, disseminated via email and social media. They found that more than half of the professors and administrators who responded to their survey had read the 2007 MLA report but that less than half -- 39 percent -- had embarked on conscious efforts to modify the curriculum as a result.

Faculty respondents expressed agreement with the recommendations put forward in that report, Lord said -- "but change is slow."

Anderson and Lord presented preliminary results from their survey at a session at the MLA’s annual convention here Thursday. A total of 134 faculty members and administrators and 246 students responded to the survey, which sought to gauge the impact of the MLA’s 2007 report, titled "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World."

That report called for language departments to embrace a broader, more interdisciplinary curriculum -- to "situate language study in cultural, historical, geographic and cross-cultural frames" -- and for the reform of a pervasive "two-tiered" structure of language teaching in which nontenured instructors teach the bulk of lower-level language courses while tenured and tenure-track professors teach upper-level literature classes and retain most of the power for guiding the educational direction of the department.

Two-fifths of faculty members and administrators who responded to Anderson and Lord’s survey said their departments resembled the two-tiered, language-literature system the MLA report recommended moving away from. In its place the 2007 report recommended that programs develop “a broader and more coherent curriculum in which language, culture and literature are taught as a continuous whole, supported by alliances with other departments and expressed through interdisciplinary courses.”

In the slides accompanying their presentation, Anderson and Lord quoted some responses that suggested resistance to curricular change or pessimism about the ability to achieve it. Asked what changes they had attempted in their department or unit, one respondent said, “I don’t bother to try to persuade my colleagues, because it would be resisted for institutional and perhaps professional reasons.”

Another said, “I chair the curriculum committee, and we cannot get any traction on changing the substance and structures of our department. Faculty are fully invested in the status quo.” Another: “We have discussed how we can lessen the divide between literature and language courses, but have not come to a consensus about anything.”

“Curriculum reform,” one respondent said, in describing what changes or she had attempted, “but we have not gone far enough.”

Respondents identified primary challenges to innovating in the curriculum as being a focus on other priorities; a lack of time, training, knowledge and support; indifference from the administration; a lack of interest outside the department or unit; a resistance to trying something new; the overextension of faculty; curricular and programmatic constraints; and the division of labors and powers in the two-tier system. Among those respondents who say they are reforming their curricula, actions taken include diversifying their curriculum and study abroad offerings, phasing out the emphasis on literature, developing interdisciplinary initiatives, and engaging with the community.

Another presentation on Thursday by Diana Ruggiero, an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Memphis, focused on the growth of languages for specific purposes (LSP) -- such as Spanish for business or medicine -- and community service learning (CSL) courses over the past decade, two types of curricular reforms that Ruggiero described as reflective of the spirit of the MLA report's "call for transformation." But while course offerings in these areas have grown, Ruggiero emphasized the challenges to integrating LSP and CSL into the foreign language curriculum, beginning with a relative lack of graduate training opportunities.

"While curricular change is abundantly noted at the undergraduate level, thanks to the flexibility, foresight and responsive vision of those departments and schools, very little will change with regards to the core FL curriculum until a greater number of LSP specialists participate in graduate-level education and are allowed to integrate LSP and CSL course work into the master’s and Ph.D. curriculum," Ruggiero said. "That this is not yet the case arguably speaks to the continued two-tiered structural division in the governance of [foreign language] programs noted in the 2007 MLA report."

Anderson and Lord concluded their presentation on their survey results on Thursday by quoting from that 2007 report, specifically a line stating that "foreign language departments, if they are to be meaningful players in higher education -- or, indeed, if they are to thrive as autonomous units -- must transform their programs and structure."

"We're concluding, preliminarily, that that's still true," Anderson said.

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