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World Language Proficiency in California, Day 1

Written By: daveski on February 8, 2009 2 Comments

A point of consensus that emerged from Friday’s first session of the UCCLLT colloquium “World Language Proficiency in a California Context” was the need for greater public and political will to support foreign and native and heritage language education in California. The main question of the day seemed to be how to cultivate this will. This is, no doubt, an outstanding question.

Berkeley’s Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer opened by relating his personal experiences of learning Spanish and Russian, and said that efforts to promote language education are important as part of a larger project of fostering ‘cultural diversity’ (see the work of the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative).

Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, followed by relating the intent of three recent MLA reports to the content of its major foreign language report from 2007, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (viewable and downloadable here). Noting that the languages called the “less commonly taught languages” (those other than the major languages of western Europe) are in fact the more commonly spoken languages, Feal called for the need for greater integration, inclusion and equity for the large population of non-tenure track university and college faculty who are teaching foreign languages.

Ray Clifford, the president of the ACTFL, presented a sobering picture of the language competence of university foreign language majors and argued that a “team approach” among all faculty involved in teaching FLs needs to be taken.

Claire Kramsch, UC Berkeley professor of German and Education, and an author of the 2007 MLA report, raised the fundamental question of why foreign language education is necessary in today’s globalized world. The translingual and transcultural competence argued for in the MLA report requires learners to position themselves as translators among what are at times incommensurate meanings, contesting dominant discourses and finding meaning in the processes of negotiation themselves.

Olga Kagan, the director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA, noted that there are many objective reasons to nurture and expand heritage language education in California, but the fundamental mandate is the fact that students with partial fluency or affiliation to non-English languages are already filling the classrooms of California schools. She argued that local schools (K-12 as well as colleges and universities), cities, and regions need to pay close attention to local demographics and build language programs that serve the local population (see survey here).

The final presentation of the afternoon was made by Marjorie Perloff of Stanford University and the University of Southern California; she argued that the two-tier system so prevalent in higher education and critiqued by the MLA report (whereby tenure-line faculty teach higher-level language and literature ‘prestige’ courses and non tenure-line faculty teach lower-level language courses, stigmatized as skills-based learning) is of course flawed, but that its importance in the grander scheme of things would be diluted, perhaps even transformed, if foreign language education were to happen more systematically and continuously in California schools from an early age; beginning language courses at the university level would still be offered but, she suggested, would by matter of course be much fewer in number.

These hypotheses, and the discussion that followed in the two panels on Saturday pointed back to the question raised at the top of the post: how to cultivate the public and political will to build world language proficiency in California? Reflecting on this question in Pauley Ballroom, with 200+ seats set out but with only 80 of them occupied, I couldn’t help but feel with a sense of angst that this is certainly an outstanding question.

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2 Responses to “World Language Proficiency in California, Day 1”

  1. Youki on: 9 February 2009 at 3:49 am

    great summary, and I do recall seeing the talks being recorded so hopefully we can link to it soon.

    I especially liked Reed Johnson’s talk on cultural connections between Los Angeles and Mexico City, both sister cities. Much of the conference was focused on top-down approaches to language learning and teaching (not to diminish the importance of top-down issues like funding or classroom size), and Reed Johnson’s approach was “under the radar” — for example, he spoke about the Caminata Nocturna (Night Hike), in which a Mexican town simulated a three-hour border crossing attempt. I thought this talk was especially relevant to the notions of translingual/transcultural competence which framed the conference. Learning a new language shouldn’t just be about learning the positive aspects of a culture; it shouldn’t be about fetishizing a culture or commodifying it, it should be about a genuine willingness to learn about all aspects of a culture, to try to better understand the experiences, narratives, and myths that constitute a culture and a way of life.

    I did a bit of digging and found this video on the Caminata Nocturna:

    It is part of an article by Reed Johnson in the LA Times. Very interesting.

    It was suggested at the conference that learning a new language makes you whole, makes you complete. Well, perhaps learning a new language makes you realize that you are actually incomplete; that your own way of looking at things is just one of many. I am reminded of the following quote by Wittgenstein:

    “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

  2. daveski on: 9 February 2009 at 10:42 am

    Powerful video. Watching it makes me think of Augosto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” a la Freirian critical pedagogy. Ben Rampton and the idea of “crossing”. And, yeah, all the mundane, uncountable limitations, gaps, displacements we encounter and perpetuate just going about the business of everyday life. Great Wittgenstein quote. Maybe if we could all spend some time everyday learning another language we’d be a little more aware of the limits of our worlds…

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