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Whither “the foreign” in foreign language education?

Written By: daveski on May 26, 2010 1 Comment

Where is “the foreign” in language education? Is it going out of style, falling out of favor, abandoning the claim it used to have on places and people in popular discourse?

Growing up as a mostly monolingual English speaker in the United States, I did not often question that there were such things in the world as foreign languages—they were the languages of other countries, often separated by oceans and, if not, colored in different hues on the globes found in my classrooms, my home, and in my imagination (I think already of Benedict Anderson’s now-(in)famous characterization of the role of maps, census and museum in populating ‘our’ national imaginaries). I grew up hearing about “foreign countries”, “foreign films”, and “foreign exchange”—all of which seem still to have much currency in popular discourse in the U.S.—so why not continue to call other languages “foreign”?

When one looks at the professional organizations and university language departments devoted to the teaching and learning of languages other than English here in the United States, the use of the term “foreign languages” still seems to predominate. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) is a major institution advising on the teaching of other languages in the U.S. since the 1960s, and has been publishing its research journal Foreign Language Annals since that time as well. The Modern Language Association, which maintains the purpose of “promot[ing] study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures”, regularly employs a distinction between “English” and “foreign languages”: witness its “Conference on the Relation between English and Foreign Languages in the Academy” held in April 2002, and the formation in 2007 of the influential Ad-Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, for instance. Closer to home here in California, the Foreign Language Association of Northern California has been working on behalf of language professionals since 1952, and the Northern California Foreign Language Project is active in professional development activities here in the San Francisco Bay Area as well.

Yet, inasmuch as changes can be read from the names of organizations, publications and events, a change seems to be afoot. Namely, the “foreign” of foreign languages seems to be undergoing a transformation in sense and sensibility, as it is replaced by the world in popular discourse. Perusing the publications of the various language associations across the United States, one gets the sense that “Foreign Language” remains in titles and names only, while “World Language” gains ascendancy as the preferred term of choice as meaning is articulated in discourse: the Ohio Foreign Language Association, for instance, states its mission as follows:

The Ohio Foreign Language Association is committed to world language study beginning in the primary grades, so that every learner, from early childhood through adult, acquires a high level of communicative and intercultural competence.

And although it goes by the name Michigan World Language Association, this organization also seems to vacillate between the two terms in its online publications; for example, an article praising the winner of the national ACTFL award seamlessly blends the two:

Dr. Nerenz, as an author, a professor of French and foreign language pedagogy, a national leader in teacher preparation and continuing teacher education as well as in the writing, development, and implementation of curricula, a wise counselor, and an advocate for excellence in world language teaching and learning, has shaped the course of world language education in our nation.

Are these two terms in free variation with one another? Or, as I asked at the outset, is there a growing distaste for the word “foreign” as it applies to languages? (currency and films appear to be stable at the moment) Are “foreign languages” on the way to becoming historical vestiges, present for a while in the job titles and Cold War-era institutional names, only to be replaced with a name suitable for the hybridized, global present? In this regard, the Kansas World Language Association’s publication of a rationale for changing its organizational name in 2004 offers some insight into what may be at stake in the use of these two terms:

we voted to change the organization’s name [from Kansas Foreign Language Association] to the Kansas World Language Association (KSWLA). This is intended to diminish the ‘foreign-ness’ of language learning, to extend membership to teachers of North American native languages, and to encourage teachers of English to speakers of other languages in becoming members.

It seems to me that there is a fairly large difference between “diminishing the ‘foreign-ness’ of language learning”, on one hand, and diminishing the foreign-ness of the languages themselves. Yet the KSWLA’s statement, to my eye at least, opens the door to the possibility that these two have been conflated. What is it about the notion of “foreignness” that can make language learning itself so unpalatable?

In following posts–and in my dissertation, parts of which I’m toying with the idea of ‘publishing’ here and elsewhere online, in preliminary, unrefined, and hopefully eminently commentable form–I’d like to explore this question more. Next time, I’ll try to take up a little bit of the literature on where the foreignness of “foreign languages” stands when it’s compared to some of the assumptions underlying the teaching and learning of the ‘other’ languages that we teach: “second languages”, “world languages” “global languages”, and “heritage languages” for starters.

But before that, I’d love to talk more about the question as it stands here in this blog post: whither “the foreign” in foreign language education?

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One Response to “Whither “the foreign” in foreign language education?”

  1. Trip Kirkpatrick on: 3 June 2010 at 6:52 am

    Speculation: It seems to me that the change is part of a long-term trend toward repositioning the United States as simply one of 200+ countries in the world rather than the hub of the universe. (That title is still claimed by Boston, MA. http://www.universalhub.com/glossary/hub.html) While marking English as not a “world language” is awkward, calling Swahili one is likely an attempt to make it “a language that you might use and find intellectually worthwhile” as opposed to “a language only useful to those weird people over there”.

    There may also be an element of finally appreciating the linguistic diversity of the United States population. Is Spanish a “foreign language”? Not given how many people speak it within our borders. Taking things a step beyond even the “world” modifier, a worthwhile comparison might be the World Music category in US record stores.* To me, that label is becoming outmoded as more American musicians explore making music with and from other cultures, and as the mainstream flirts with or absorbs genres like reggaeton and Bollywood.

    *That no such thing as a “record store” exists any more does not invalidate the comparison. 🙂

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