Based on the articles about foreign language requirements
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Organization of American Historiansnewsletter August 2014
Psychologists estimate that between 2 and 8 percent of adults suffer from recurring nightmares, and I’m one of them. One of my unsettling dreams goes like this. I’m finally about to graduate from my Ph.D. program in American history, and so naturally, I’m feeling very pleased with myself. All those years of self-denying, strenuous hard work are about to pay off! I’ve finished my coursework, passed my comprehensive exams, and with my dissertation, I’ve made a substantial and original contribution to my field. Everyone agreed it had been a success.
Then at the last minute, I’m blindsided by the terrible news. “There has been a mistake,” someone informs me. “You won’t be graduating after all. You haven’t satisfied the department’s foreign language requirement.”I continue to periodically have that nightmare in spite of the fact that I earned my Ph.D. at Columbia almost ten years ago.
Before I could get too far in the program, however, I had to show that I could “read” a foreign language. After numerous attempts, I finally passed the exam in French, but I can’t say I gained much from the experience. At the time, I was preparing to specialize in post-World War II American history, and like all of my cohorts, I had a lot to work on. I needed practice reading, writing, and refining my thinking. Big gaps in my knowledge demanded to be filled. I’ve never been busier, or worked harder, in my life. Yet many mornings, I was waking up while it was still dark in order to conjugate French verbs and memorize vocabulary cards. Even in my most optimistic moments, I couldn’t see how that was supposed to help me in my career.
Turns out, I was right to be skeptical. Since then, I’ve not needed to translate anything from a foreign language to do my work. Now more than ever, I can look back and say that from a professional standpoint, the language requirement was a hideous nuisance.
Neither the American Historical Association nor the Organization of American Historians keep tabs on which graduate programs make their Americanists pass a translation exam, but a quick search on the Web shows that it’s a standard requirement at most schools. Some programs even require their Ph.D. candidates to demonstrate proficiency in two foreign languages. Why?
I asked the graduate directors at a handful of highly regarded departments, as well as a few senior professors that I know. By far the most frequent answer that I received – which one professor said was “obvious” – is that American historians should be able to read secondary materials, as well as primary sources, in languages other than English.
However, this seems a flimsy rationale for upholding what is an onerous requirement, particularly considering the current crisis in graduate education. The barriers to enter the professoriate have never been higher. About half of those who begin Ph.D. programs in the humanities will not finish, and graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before.
A person can become a lawyer after three years of study, or a medical doctor after four, but nowadays the median time it takes to earn a doctoral degree in history is about nine years.
Among those who do finish, only the most fortunate will land jobs that reward independent research. Most of the rest, if they choose to remain in academia, will become supremely overqualified contingent laborers. Their work lives will be devoted to teaching and grading.
Besides, if it’s true that language requirements exist in order to ensure that graduatescan read historical materials in languages other than English, then most departmental exams are an ineffectual farce…. Graduate students routinely satisfy their language requirements without ever acquiring a practical skill. They still have not learned, in any meaningful or practical sense of the word, how to “read” another language. No wonder students tend to regard these exams as hoops to jump through, and nothing more.
It was also frequently said that foreign language skills are essential for anyone who desires to be considered cultivated, broad-minded, or well rounded. “No person with a Ph.D. should be so parochial as to only know the native language,” one historian said flatly.This was perhaps the least satisfying type of reply I received, because it’s not an argument; it’s a value judgment, or an article of faith. And it’s belied by the fact that plenty of outstanding scholars – people who do great work, who collect prizes, who occupy professional offices, and who hold endowed chairs – are essentially monolingual. Moreover, American history doctoral programs are not in the business of producing “well-rounded individuals.” In fact, since the modern university system was created about a hundred years ago, history departments have encouraged high degrees of specialization. Most dissertations are the product of narrowly focused research on esoteric topics.
And while it’s true that language skills can broaden a person’s horizons, so too can plenty of other things, including expertise in philosophy, math, and science. Get a dozen humanists together, and you’re likely to hear a dozen competing, idiosyncratic thoughts about just what it is that every educated person “needs to know.” A historian could study the Complete Works of Shakespeare in far less time than it takes to learn a language, and he or she would likely come away with deep and profound insights into the human condition. Who knows, that knowledge might even have a salutary effect upon a person’s historical writing. But no one’s suggesting we make Shakespeare a requirement for American history graduate students.
Finally, it was said that English speaking grad students should get a foreign language education because that’s what people do elsewhere. “To drop the requirement would suggest that ‘everyone’ in the world speaks English, a typical example of American parochialism,” one well-known scholar told me.
There’s no doubt that Americans don’t emphasize foreign language educations as much as other countries. Then again, there may be a very good reason for that. From a practical point of view, English is by far the most important language for scholars to know.
It has become the global language of commerce, science, and the educated class. I realize that some people don’t like hearing that, perhaps because they think it reeks of arrogance or linguistic nativism. But it’s a fact nonetheless.
This is not the place to explore the reasons why academic departments, like other bureaucracies, tend to perpetuate traditions. But it’s hard to escape the thought that language requirements persist in American history grad programs are based on assumptions or mind-sets, that became entrenched a very long time ago, and since then have been handed down so often as to become the conventional wisdom. Alas, conventional wisdom often eludes critical scrutiny, even among history professors.
Let me finish with a few clarifications. This is not a treatise against foreign languages.
I am not arguing that native English-speakers who devote themselves to foreign languages are usually behaving irrationally. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who wishes to explore foreign languages should go ahead and do so. I will not object.
Also, of course, I realize that for a fairly small subset of American historians, foreign language expertise may in fact be necessary. In recent years, the study of the United States in the world has been a big topic. Furthermore, if someone wants to study Creoles in Louisiana, or migrant workers on the Central Pacific Railroad, or turn-of-the-century anarchists in New York City, it would likely be helpful for them to know French, Chinese, or Italian. That is hardly a rationale, however, for making foreign languages a requirement for all aspiring American historians.
Here’s a much better idea: Let’s have graduate students focus on developing the skills they’ll need in order to pursue their careers. Every American history graduate student needs practice teaching, thinking critically, and writing gracefully. However, hardly any of them need to know a foreign language in order to do the work they wish to do.
America’s Lacking Language Skills
The Atlantic May 10, 2015
Educators from across the country recently gatheredin Washington, D.C. to lobby in the support of world languages. It was Language Advocacy Day, an annual event on Capitol Hill that is aimed at garnering more federal support for language education.
Each year as national budget priorities are determined, language education is losing out; cuts have been made to funding for such instruction. Language enrollments in higher education in the U.S. declined by more than 111,000 students between 2009 and 2013, the first drop since 1995. Now only 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.
Another challenge emerges when looking at the languages these students are learning, too. In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally, 193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, noted back in 2010 that the vast majority (95 percent) of all language enrollments were in a European language. This is just one indicator demonstrating the shortcomings and inequalities in language education today.
Education is dominated by disputes over priorities, largely because of politics and limited funding. Some people think arts instruction is financial quicksand; some believe that sports don’t belong in the schools. Others even assert that schools’ emphasis on math could be holding students back. Language is another subject area whose importance is greatly debated. Advocates and educators disagree about whether it’s a worthwhile investment, whether it’s something that produces an appropriate on investment.
Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. That’s noteworthy considering that in 2008 almost all high schools in the country (93 percent) offered foreign languages, according to a national survey. In many cases, as Richard Brecht, who oversees the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, said on Thursday, “It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”
Language proficiency is just as hard to build as it is to maintain. But the same could be said even about core subjects, such as math. Five years ago, I took Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra; now, I need a calculator to multiply four by seven. Still, my math classes taught me something more valuable than how to solve a complex equation. I learned skills that help me with the accounting, bookkeeping, research, and budget strategizing required in my day job. Like math, language-learning is shown to come with a host of cognitive and academic benefits. Knowing a foreign language is an undoubtedly practical skill. According to Mohamed Abdel-Kader, the deputy leading the DOE’s language-education arm, one in five jobs are tied to international trade. Meanwhile, the Joint National Committee for Languages reports that the language industry, which includes companies that provide language services and materials, employs more than 200,000 Americans. These employees earn an annual wage of $80,000.
Kirsten Brecht-Baker, the founder of Global Professional Search, recently told me
about what she calls “the global war for talent.” Americans, she said, are in danger of needing
to import human capital because insufficient time or dollars are being invested in language education domestically. “It can’t just be about specialization in engineering or medicine or technology anymore,” she said. “They have to communicate in the language.”
The Joint National Committee for Languages advocates for integrating language education with subjects ranging from engineering to political science, anything, really. “Languages are not a side dish that’s extra, but it’s a side dish that complements other skills,” Hanson said. “You can use it to augment and fortify other skills that you have, and expand the application of these skills.” But students, especially those in college, are often discouraged from language courses or studying abroad because of stringent requirements in another subject matter.
Perhaps educational institutions can address this challenge by integrating language into their other programs. One solution cited by advocates is dual-language instruction, in which a variety of subjects are taught in two languages, thereby eliminating the need to hire a separate language instructor. At the elementary level, these programs appear to have immediate impact
on children’s learning. Bill Rivers, one of the country’s most prominent language lobbyists, points to significant evidence that students in dual-language programs outperform their peers in reading and math by fourth grade, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. Also advocates say dual-language programs are cost-effective because they typically don’t require extra materialsfor the language instruction; a science textbook, for example, would simply be published in the target language. The same goes for the number of teachers needed, though those teachers need to be bilingual as well.
Then there’s the question about what languages to offer. Roughly 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide, and it’d take a several lifetimes for any one person to learn them all. French and Spanish are often default offerings at institutions across the country, but beyond that, there’s a good deal of variabilityand focuses have tended to change over time. Janet Ikeda, a Japanese-language professor, put it like this: “Administrators are cutting established programs for what I call the ‘language du jour’.”The Modern Language Association has tracked data over seven decades showing the influence of international and domestic developments on language education, but these pop-up programs may be misguided. Learning a language in a non-immersive classroom setting takes years. If schools are offering learning the “language du jour” today, it’s bound to be the “language d’hier” tomorrow.
There’s also the problem of teacher shortages. Even if schools embrace the various benefits of foreign-language instruction, finding qualified, experienced, and engaging, bilingual teachers is tough. The language-policy analyst Rachel Hanson describes this as a chicken-or-egg challenge in language education. “You can’t expand language education if you don’t have the pool of teachers to teach it,” she said. “And, if the students aren’t learning the language and becoming proficient, they won’t become teachers.”
The country has faced shortcomings in language education for at least the past several years. Enrollments have been persistently low, as have proficiency levels; the same goes for non-Western language offerings. Plus, with English as a lingua franca of trade and international politics, bilingualism has become less and less of a priority. True, many people speak English proficiently, but 19 million Americans and billions of people globally do not.
“It’s not a nice-to-have,” Rivers said. “Languages are a need-to-have.”
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