Learning and Languages

Claiming Our Space

Deb S. Reisinger makes the case that intercultural perspectives can and should inform the teaching of academic content in many disciplines, making language study not only relevant but even indispensable.

May 18, 2017

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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