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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Colleges strive to make foreign languages relevant

Timothy A. Bennett strives toward a new vision for the foreign language department. "You can think of a university as a little continent full of different kingdoms," said Bennett, chair of the foreign languages and literatures department at WittenbergUniversity, a Lutheran liberal arts college inOhio. "I'd prefer that language departments suffused the curriculum rather than just be another kingdom among many kingdoms."

To that end, Wittenberg's language department has revised its own intermediate-level language classes — making them more interdisciplinary in nature — and has spread outward across the university in the form of a new "Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum" (CLAC) program. In making these recent changes — with the help of a two-year, $179,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education— Wittenberg's foreign language faculty were responding both to a charge to "internationalize" the curriculum and to a growing sense that student interests were changing.

"The traditional study of language and literature really wasn't addressing the current generation," Bennett said. "So how could we begin to reach out and find ways for students to understand the importance of language and culture study and to see language not necessarily as an end unto itself but as a tool of discovery, a way of encountering the world and the disciplines?"

In Wittenberg's CLAC program, students sign up for a one-credit language module as an optional add-on to a non-language class in another discipline. In a tutorial fashion, the student designs an independent project in consultation with the professor of the content class and executes it under the guidance of a foreign language faculty member (advising CLAC students now counts toward a foreign language professor's teaching load).

"The point is not to make it into a language class," said Bennett. "The point is to make it an experience with the content area where the language is the key to being able to complete the project." For instance, Bennett, who teaches German, worked with a student in a geology class as she researched geothermal energy and seismic activity in Germany. Students in a Chinese-language module for a course on Japanese history researched how China responded to the bombing at Hiroshima.

"That's a really tough nut to crack," said Bennett. "You're working with students with an intermediate knowledge of Chinese and they may only get a small chunk of that problem solved. They may only be able to look at very small portions of newspaper articles, or maybe only look at propaganda posters in some cases, but nonetheless what happened is they were able to see ways in which language and culture construct knowledge."

The only prerequisite for the CLAC modules is to be enrolled in or have completed a two-credit intermediate-level language course. "One of the points we want to make with students is even if you're at a beginning/intermediate level, you can begin doing something with a language," Bennett said.

Which brings up the revised intermediate-level courses. Wittenberg threw out the traditional model in which skills —composition and conversation —are the organizing principle. Instead the college teaches language through interdisciplinary study. After one year of college language — the French, German, Russian or Spanish 1 and 2 sequence —students can now elect to take a variety of half-semester, two-credit intermediate-level language courses in topics in history, the environment, film, national identity, and translation, for example. (Chinese and Japanese retain more traditional intermediate-level courses, due to the steeper learning curve for those languages.) "What we're trying to do is build as many gateways for students to come in and study language and culture, connect it to as many issues, topics as we can," said Bennett.

Or, as Timothy L. Wilkerson, an associate professor of French put it, "We had to find a way to make second-year French not suck." In the traditional composition class, as he explained, "Everything you do is wrong. Everything you do is circled in red and everything has to be rewritten and often by the teacher."

Prior to the curricular changes, the French department was struggling. It wasn't uncommon for Wilkerson to teach upper-level literature courses with just three students. But after he taught an intermediate French course on the natural environment this year – the title of the French-language text he used translates as Ecology for Idiots – three of the students from that single class signed up for a French minor, Wilkerson said. "It taught them something about the world, in French, that they didn't know. It was all bad news unfortunately," Wilkerson said, cheekily.

In broad strokes, Wittenberg's two-pronged reforms – an embrace of interdisciplinarity within the department's offerings and a movement across departmental boundaries to make language study relevant to a broader demographic of students – represent a microcosm of the kind of change language departments across the nation are debating and discussing.

An influential 2007 Modern Language Association report, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World," called for giving students options for language study beyond the traditional literary track, and for increased collaboration with departments across campus. Noting that only 6.1% of foreign language majors attain a doctoral degree, the report states that, "for those students and for others who enjoy literary studies, one path to the major should be through literature. But to attract students from other fields and students with interests beyond literary studies, particularly students returning from a semester or a year abroad, departments should institute courses that address a broad range of curricular needs."

"The foreign language programs at many institutions are facing budget cuts, and a lot of institutions have been looking hard to strengthen the programs, especially in collaboration with other units on campus," said Rosemary Feal, the MLA's executive director.

"What we're seeing is a shifting in thinking on the part of faculty members in foreign language departments. They are rethinking their curricula in the light of changing needs of students in the 21st century, a desire to internationalize the campus, and in response to shifting budget priorities."

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