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Why study a language, anyway?

Written By: daveski on October 23, 2010 6 Comments

The thinning out, scaling down, and downright elimination of language programs seems to be a normalizing trend in these times of budgetary hardship. While the State University of New York at Albany’s wholesale elimination of its French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater programs this month has received some notice, it hasn’t, as far as I’ve heard, met with much resistance. Meanwhile, at Louisiana State University, the Daily Reveille reports that, in response to the latest round of budget cuts, its Latin, German, Swahili, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian language sequences (am I missing some?) will be eliminated, with 14 foreign language instructors fired earlier than any of the 200+ other scheduled firings. And this past May, Cal State Fullerton drew much attention here at Berkeley and elsewhere as its president, Milton Gordon, overturned the Academic Senate decision to not cut its French, German, and Portuguese programs. These are now gone, and the list of disappearing languages could likely be extended to dozens more universities in the U.S. and, while we’re at it, across this ocean or that.

While there are numerous arguments being made from a top-down perspective — compelling arguments that the humanities themselves are in crisis in this country, and that our own university’s (UC) leadership might be failing us both in principle and in practice — when I sat down at Berkeley’s Caffe Strada this past Friday with several other students and lecturers in the languages, we agreed that these events have brought another, difficult outcome. More, perhaps, than in the past, language teachers are being forced to become language advocates, ever ready to provide answers to the simple yet confounding question: “Why study a lan

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6 Responses to “Why study a language, anyway?”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 26 October 2010 at 10:09 am

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    I thought I should explain the video a little bit, given that it was posted in a context that others may not share. It’s a neat video that encapsulates, through the utilization of humor, the “crisis of humanities” that some say is upon us right now. I also think the most fascinating thing is not what would be the answer to the question, why study a foreign language, but to excavate the reasons that it is being asked.

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    You might want to check out a Language Log post here. Yikes:

    “Wonderful to teach people, but is it moral to attract them into an academic career? Could any young person find a life doing what I do?”

  2. daveski on: 29 October 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I laughed at this video too, but only a little bit (who made it, anyway?). The bitterness and cynicism that characterizes so many people who’ve tried to stake out a career in the humanities gets directed back inward and outward at people ‘who would contemplate’ doing such a thing, all the time, it seems. Maybe that’s where the language log post is coming from too. We all know that some real basic values have to change in society for these things to change…how to make it happen? Even a little bit?

    Interesting event scheduled for November 10 in London, “Fund our Future” protesting the massive cuts to languages & arts in universities there… http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=108181969236102 I don’t know much about this yet but wanna learn more….

  3. mike on: 2 November 2010 at 6:57 pm

    higher education is about learning to think in new, unfamiliar ways and consequently learning how to learn. it’s not about content.

    for the vast majority of students who take a course (or two), say, in biology, the content is totally useless. most people will never need to know anything about mrna translation, which they learn in a college biology course in order to pass an exam. what they learn in a biology course that is of real educational value is how to think (if only for a semester or two) like a biologist, how to think differently in a specific way about the world. the same is true of every discipline. while learning content is necessary for learning how to think in the terms and frameworks of a particular discipline, it is less the content itself and more the fact of learning to think in a different way that is of value.

    learning a foreign language is not about knowing how to order a meal when you’re in the country where the language is spoken or how to negotiate a business deal in that language. it’s about learning how to think in a new way, learning that each language, with its particular grammatical structures and lexicon, organizes reality in a unique way (as does every discipline with its specific concepts and categories). it is a portal onto the world, a new way of thinking.

    we teach language to teach different ways of thinking. and the value of an education lies precisely in that. higher education is not vocational training. no one can know what jobs will be in demand ten or twenty years from now, but the ability to think in different ways and to learn how to learn will always be indispensable.

  4. Jonathan on: 8 November 2010 at 7:38 am

    Great comment, Mike. I think you really get to the heart of why cuts in language programs (or any program) hurt higher education and narrows the horizons of students. However, I have trouble seeing this understanding of language education actually carried out in a substantive way.

    On the contrary, I think language teachers are under a lot of pressure to do just the things that undercut your message: orienting students for study abroad, teaching culture rather than intercultural competence, privileging speaking over other modalities, and using the “real world applications” of the language to motivate students.

    We live in a hostile environment where English monolingualism enjoys enormous political currency. Biology also has it tough here: between 40-50% of Americans do not believe in evolution (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1107/polling-evolution-creationism). However, the biologists who spend their time justifying their work to creationists — showing how the biblical account can be reconciled with Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example — represent a sliver of that discipline. For language teachers, we are constantly engaging with monolingualism from a position of solicitous subservience. Of course _everybody in the world_ speaks English, we say, but: What about Terrorism, Mexican drug cartels, and China; oh, and your daughter would really like to see the Eiffel tower on her junior year abroad. And, of course, the funding follows these arguments, giving the few remaining language teachers the incentive to accentuate the advantage in trade, tourism and national security to be gained through language study.

    We need to find a way to make the argument that, as you say, “the ability to think in different ways and to learn how to learn will always be indispensable” tangible, but we can’t do that in the language we’re using in today’s classrooms.

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