Three Recommendations for the Future of Foreign Language Study

by | Jan 24, 2019 | The Future of Education

The Modern Language Association reported this week that, from 2013-2016, higher education lost 651 foreign language programs.

As a former Spanish faculty member who spent the first part of his professional career teaching languages and literature in higher education, my thought on reading this was, “Well, this has been a long time coming.”

It’s not that learning languages are no longer important. Quite the contrary. Language study remains an ideal mechanism for understanding human culture and the dynamics of communication. Developing an appreciation for languages (of all kinds) is instrumental in understanding human behavior and societies. That’s why TEL will be offering both Chinese and Latin as part of our course catalog in Fall 2019.

The problem isn’t with the value of learning languages but rather with the value our old model of required language study as part of the general education curriculum. This model has students complete a required number of language courses as an isolated, non-integrated area of study. The closure of language programs is simply evidence that this model is losing its value in a shifting higher education landscape.

What are possible solutions or alternatives? I think there are several that could both reset the vision for language learning in higher education, as well as promote the acquisition of skills and competencies students need for professional success.

1. Integrate language and culture study into the core curriculum in obviously meaningful ways — With a growing emphasis on providing students with demonstrable skills and competencies that will help them flourish professionally, colleges must find a way to integrate language and culture study into the core curriculum in practical and applicable. Students must understand and be able to articulate how required culture and language study will lead to improved professional opportunities, regardless of their career choice.

2, Transition from specific language requirements to International Studies or Cultural Literacy requirements that feature language study as an option — The language requirements that emerged across higher education more than 50 years ago embraced the notion that students could become proficient in a language after 3-4 semesters of study. In other words, the point of studying a language was to develop proficiency. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of students ever attain a useful level of proficiency. Knowing this, universities should consider shifting the emphasis of language study from proficiency toward international and cultural literacy. This is a literacy that most students can master and one that will have broad professional benefits.

3. Create self-study options that reward college credit to students who actually achieve measurable proficiency in languages — Even with a shift in the emphasis of language study from proficiency toward international and cultural literacy, we should still allow motivated students avenues for pursuing proficiency in languages. One option for this is to provide proficiency testing services that allow students to develop language proficiency through non-univesity course work — an online language program, study abroad, etc. — and earn credit for achieving an acceptable proficiency score on the ACTFL scale.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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