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A NEW RELEVANCY FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGES IN THE CURRICULUM


Orrin Frink


THE study of foreign languages and foreign cultures has gained a new and vital relevancy for the welfare of the nation, for our personal lives, and for the curriculum. Columnists and commentators, professors and politicians, managers and leaders of business and industry—all lament America's scandalous ignorance of foreign languages and cultures and our blindness to the way the rest of the world thinks and behaves. Foreign has always been relevant, but the perception of relevancy is new on the American scene.

Things have changed. I first began studying foreign languages and cultures because the subject was interesting and because, like the hypothetical mountain to be scaled, “it was there.” Now, however, it seems imperative that we study things foreign because they are here, all around us, affecting us in everything we do, every day. Foreign is here, and the country is receptive to a greater international awareness in education.

I wish to discuss what happened at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, my own institution; to describe the issues and arguments leading to reestablishment of a foreign language requirement; to comment on the role of foreign language faculty in the process; and to make some predictions and a personal statement.

In 1973 Iowa State University's College of Sciences and Humanities (the liberal arts college) dropped a long-standing graduation requirement of one year of foreign language study. They did so, I believe, not in a spirit of pandering to student demands but in a positive attempt to be better by being different. Alas, they would have been wiser to try to be different by being better, by strengthening and broadening their minimal requirement instead of dropping it. Nevertheless, drop it they did, and the Foreign Languages Department shrank from about thirty-eight faculty in 1972 to twenty-three in 1975, when I came to chair.

I spent several years pointing out that we taught only European languages and that, since there was more to the world than Europe, we should be offering Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and one other language in addition to the European languages if we wished to claim any international intentions for the university as a whole. Someone must have heard me, for in February 1979 the college curriculum committee commissioned a subcommittee report on course offerings in these languages at universities in contiguous states. As a result of the report, the committee recommended to the dean that we “institute courses in Mandarin Chinese, Modern Standard Arabic, and Japanese—in that order of priority.”

Our response was that simply adding courses in more languages would achieve nothing, because students would not enroll. I challenged the college curriculum committee to translate their advocacy of foreign language learning into a formal and distinct graduation requirement. 1

In March 1979 the college curriculum committee studied the foreign language requirements at Big Eight and Big Ten universities, and in May 1979 the committee presented four foreign language requirements for public debate by the college representative assembly. The debate continued until May 1980 and resulted in what some observers considered a strange requirement: two years of foreign language study in high school or one year at the university in conjunction with some foreign culture courses. In fact, the requirement is an and/or proposition. It is a high school and/or university, foreign language and/or culture, admissions and/or graduation requirement that takes effect in fall 1983. Many students think it is already in effect.

During the 1977–79 period we distributed to the department and to the deans, vice-presidents, and curriculum committees copies of all the arguments we could find in newspapers and in popular and professional journals and copies of the task force reports to the President's Commission (the Perkins committee). I made two hundred copies of the Perkins committee report when it was published and made sure each member of every curriculum committee and of the representative assembly received a copy. I have no evidence that anyone ever read this material, and it is possible my efforts were unproductive.

Were I to do it again, I would limit the material to the following six items: Norman Cousins' editorial “How to Make People Smaller than They Are,” Flora Lewis' review of Paul Simon's book, William Fulbright's “We're Tongue-Tied,” the “Xenophobia” pages from Harpers , the Modern Language Association's Language Study Statement that begins, “From the earliest days of civilization …,” and finally, the Perkins committee report. 2 For me, Norman Cousins' statement alone is persuasive enough, but others may find other articles more effective. Different scholars will see different things in so wide an array of materials.

In addition to distributing these materials, we took several other actions. We gradually eliminated all the specialized courses, such as Technical French for Graduate Students Who Have More Pressing Things to Do, Scientific German for Nervous Graduate Students in Chemistry, and Scientific Russian for Students Who Don't Really Care, maintaining in a quiet, steady chant that foreign language study is difficult but rewarding and that classics are central to a liberal arts education and basic to an understanding of Western civilization.

We never missed an opportunity to answer a request for free translations with the statement that our departmental mission is teaching and research (“We don't do translations”), and that we are not a department of babble and chatter. We followed up such requests by sending copies of the American Translators Association and the federal government's suggested translating fee schedules—$55 per thousand words into English and $200 to $500 per thousand words into foreign languages. 3 When, for reasons of protocol, we had to do a translation for someone, we indicated the normal fee, marked “No charge, Donation to nonprofit organization,” so that the translator could deduct the value of the service from his or her personal income tax and so that others would be able to attach a dollar value to something we can, but usually don't, do. 4

When colleagues from other departments called to ask what languages their students might most profitably study, we usually said something like, “You guys are supposed to know that. Oh, we could make suggestions, but the choice would have more credibility for your students if it came from you. Why don't you call your professional societies, the Library of Congress, the GAO and NASA and ask them? Then you won't have to take our word for it.” One study, done by Jon Applequist in the biochemistry-biophysics department, was published in the ADFL Bulletin last summer. 5 Intended as part of an argument for instituting a graduate foreign language requirement, his presentation of the study to his department received, as I understand it, the response “There are so many languages that are important we don't know which one to require—so let's not require any.” Scarcely the result he expected.

My constant concern during the period of public debate was to ensure that the department continued to present a strong, positive image to the rest of the university community, not only through the official business of the department but also through our individual attitudes. I made many suggestions to department faculty, most of which went unheeded but, I think, helped produce calm, self-confidence, and dignity, qualities our departmental image had lacked before. I suggested that each time they used English—in class or on the telephone, in correspondence or in the catalog course descriptions—they only confirmed skeptics' suspicions that it was neither necessary nor useful to learn a foreign language. If the foreign language faculty always use English, why should anyone bother to learn their other languages?

I suggested that whenever they met someone new with whom they had to use English, they might say, “Hello, I'm Professor So-and-so, and my language is French (Spanish or whatever). What is yours?”

I even told them about the legendary Slavic department at McGill—or was it McMaster?—where seven Slavic and Russian teachers who were not being as well supported as they wished adopted the following strategy. Whenever any one of them was serving on a committee outside the department, they would all dress in dark suits and bowler hats and arrive at meetings together and sit together, with the one who was serving on the committee sitting at the conference table. Whenever the one at the table spoke, he or she would first turn and consult with his or her colleagues and then make a contribution in the first person plural. And the Slavic department rapidly grew in strength. I don't think any of our faculty behaved that way at Iowa State, but, having heard the story, they took part in college and university business with a more positive attitude than you would expect from faculty members whose field had just been publicly stamped “No longer necessary for anyone, no longer required.”

Our cause had support at many levels within the university. The president gave me a copy of a letter in which he wrote of the importance of human understanding, “… the understanding which comes from the ability to talk with people in their native tongue, and the ability to read their literature and history in their native language. Just as language has been used historically to unify people within a country, I believe that an understanding of other languages can eventually help unify the people of the world.” I made sure our departmental brochure contained this statement. Our college dean lent support throughout the debate, to the extent that he could, as did many distinguished and non-distinguished professors.

Which of these actions and opinions had a telling effect, or any effect at all, is hard to gauge. Perhaps none. And perhaps the college would have reinstituted some foreign language and culture requirement even if we had done nothing.

During the twelve months of formal public debate, however, four arguments were advanced and considered:

  1. Foreign language study has always been a vital element of human activity. Tradition .
  2. Foreign language study is useful to scholars and scientists. Practical value for the individual .
  3. Foreign language study is essential if our nation is to survive in a disorganized, competitive, multilingual, and polycultural world. Practical value for the nation .
  4. Foreign language study alters thinking patterns, increasing our ability to abstract and learn about the patterns of others and understand our own thought processes and developing new speech centers in the brain of the learner. Improvement of learning abilities, cognitive change .

The first three arguments have been widely publicized and debated in the media but, however persuasive, seem to be “old stuff.” The fourth argument, as presented to our representative assembly by Zora Zimmerman of the English department on 12 March 1980, incorporates the first three arguments in terms of skills and culture and goes on to talk of the cognitive value of foreign language study. I think this is the argument that enabled us to win the debate over the foreign language requirement. Her statement is such a powerful and logical argument for the validity of our discipline that I believe it would persuade faculty anywhere after a proper, long-term public debate. The text of her argument, reproduced here in an appendix, should be made available to the entire profession.

I would now like to address the problem that confronts humanists and foreign language and area specialists alike. Public awareness of the national need to strengthen foreign language and culture studies in the curriculum is still clouded by a confusion of two quite distinct but equally legitimate functions of higher learning. It is clear that we need to train some students to a high degree of fluency in foreign languages and that we need to educate all students about the rest of the world. This distinction was not made clear in the Perkins report, and it has also been overlooked in subsequent public arguments. The failure to distinguish between training and educating, in a rapidly changing and shrinking world highly sensitive to international political, military, social, and economic pressures, underlies all the most recent pleas to gain international understanding and strengthen our national security and welfare through increased foreign language and area studies programs.

Some momentum has been achieved. Some institutions that had no requirements are instituting them, and institutions that already have foreign language requirements are broadening them to include foreign studies. Yet the confusion persists, and some of our critics are still pleading with us both to train students to foreign language fluency and to educate them to the foreign ways of the world.

We must first make it clear that training and educating are different processes that have different goals and demand different conditions and support. People are trained to do a job. People are educated to be human and civilized. Training produces artisans, doctors, engineers, and translators, whose finely tuned skills and competencies can get the job done. We need such highly trained people, and we need quite a few with foreign language fluency. Education produces responsible citizens who can judge what needs to be done, what should be saved and what discarded, and what should be changed. Training teaches facts and skills, which serve as a basis for judgments. Both levels of this natural hierarchy are demanded of us, in effect, by the Perkins report: training for some to a high level of foreign language fluency and foreign education for everyone to promote a civil understanding of how the rest of the world lives, what it wants, and what it values.

Once it is clear that there is a pressing national need for both training and educating, I think our profession will know how to get the job done. If I were to try to express the challenge that faces foreign language teachers idiomatically, I would say it this way:

TRAIN SOME VERY WELL, BUT EDUCATE ALL OF THEM

I predict that the profession will not radically alter the present plan of undergraduate education beyond adding some foreign language teaching where it is missing now and strengthening the international aspects of our curricula.

I predict that we will achieve success more quickly with rewards than with requirements.

I predict that the profession will find that the intensive and semiintensive approaches to foreign language training developed during World War II and still flourishing in Monterey, Washington, D.C., and some summer programs are not necessarily incompatible with our present college curriculum structure. 6

I predict that we will not find a way to make foreign language learning less than one of the most difficult and most rewarding things a human being can do.

I predict that America will work its way out of its present international predicament, not by a new and better technology, but by the hard work, imagination, and careful planning that the nation has always been able to call up in a crisis.

And one final comment. I'm getting tired of hearing how scandalously ignorant Americans are. Monolingual, perhaps, and naive … and whose fault is that, if not ours? But Americans are not ignorant, and I don't think anything is to be gained by saying they are. 7


This paper was delivered at ADFL Seminar West, held at Northfield, Minnesota, 14–17 June 1982. The author is Chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages of Iowa State University.


NOTES

1 The department of Foreign Languages and Literatures did not propose a foreign language requirement at Iowa State University, nor do I recommend that any language department do so. But I think faculty will respond in a wise and reassuring way to specific proposals to strengthen foreign language and area studies in a curriculum, based on interests of high standards and excellence in education. Certainly, an institution's standards will not rise on their own accord or without proper discussion.

2 Norman Cousins, “How to Make People Smaller than They Are,” Saturday Review , 12 Dec. 1978, p. 15; Flora Lewis, “The Language Gap,” New York Times , date and page unknown; J. William Fulbright, “We're Tongue-Tied,” Newsweek , 30 July 1979; “Xenophobia,” from “America Globally Blind, Deaf, and Dumb,” comp. Joseph Lurie, as printed in Harpers , May 1981, pp. 64–65; “Language Study Statement,” MLA Newsletter , (Feb. 1977), p. 8; James A. Perkins, Strength through Wisdom , A Report to the President from the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1979).

3 The newsletter of the American Translators Association ( ATA Chronicle ) periodically reports current translation and interpretation pay scales in the Western hemisphere. See also the excellent articles by Royal L. Tinsley, Jr.: “Translation as a Career Option for Foreign Language Majors,” ADFL Bulletin , 7, No. 4 (May 1976) 1–9, and “Subject: Free Translation,” Foreign Language Annals , 9 (Dec. 1976), 585–587.

4 Royal L. Tinsley, Jr., suggests this approach (“Translation as a Career Option … ” p. 7).

5 Applequist, “The Use of Modern Languages in Chemical and Biomedical Sciences,” ADFL Bulletin , 12, No. 4 (May 1981), 20–22.

6 For a discussion of intensive and semiintensive language training, see my chapter in The Study of Foreign Languages , ed. Joseph S. Roucek (New York: Philosophical Library, 1968), pp. 209–18.

7 If it is considered productive to engage in abrasive language and harsh criticism, one might suggest that placing no value on studying another language, culture, and civilization, seeking to be ignorant of traditions and values of other peoples, is one of the most dangerous and vicious forms of imperialism. Imperialistic though we may be, I don't think anything is gained by making this charge.


APPENDIX

12 March 1980

To: Representative Assembly

From: Zora Zimmerman
          Humanities Representative

Re: Foreign Language Requirement

I would like to address a question that has come up several times in past meetings without being satisfactorily answered. The question is whether a single, university-level year of study in foreign language achieves any significant goal.

We are all well aware that fluency —in both comprehension and production—cannot be achieved in one year. We are also aware that a thorough knowledge of the culture in which a language is spoken cannot be achieved in a year. Remarks to that effect can regularly be heard from colleagues and students in various disciplines. In fact, it has been said that anything learned in the first year must be minuscule by comparison.

This belief, and it is a belief , is widespread, strongly adhered to (if we give credence to personal experience), and false. I came to recognize the fiction of this belief after participating in the discussion and deliberations of the sciences and humanities curriculum committee and doing background research. I once believed the notion myself; I too can remember my miserable efforts in first-year language courses, and I realize even more vividly how little has survived.

But before I can convince you that something of value is learned and retained in a beginning foreign language course, I need to clarify the varying approaches to foreign language study that regularly confuse discussions of its value. In the last two meetings of the assembly, people have spoken for and against a foreign language requirement. Each person has understood the purpose of the requirement and the reasons for studying a foreign language differently. We need to establish why we support the study of a second language, and we need to agree on what this study should represent. The reasons vary and demand different courses of action. First, if we want students to acquire skills, to become fluent in conversation and composition, to read and translate successfully, then we ought to require our students to complete the third university-level year in a language. I will hazard a guess that, even with such a requirement, the students themselves will feel they have not yet become fluent . Fluency is an admirable goal but not one that we can require of all students.

The second approach to the study of a foreign language is cultural. We have become concerned, and rightly so, with the ever-narrowing perspectives of our citizenry, and we would like a guarantee that all undergraduates will be exposed to a culture different from their own. We have nurtured the idea that we cannot understand the labyrinth we live in unless we see its blueprint, until we can see it from the outside—and that is not possible if we refuse to step out. Exposure to another culture is fragmentary in the first year of language study. It is certainly more extensive in courses geared toward analyzing culture, but in these courses the major component—language—is missing, and without it, I do not believe a culture can be truly understood. Language contains culture, even if we are not consciously aware of this fact at the onset of a course of study.

The third approach to the study of a foreign language is cognitive. Only after we analyze the implications of the research being conducted on the effects of second-language acquisition on cognition can we argue in favor of a requirement. For decades it was believed that language systems were housed in the same part of the brain—primarily in the left hemisphere. It did not matter which language one learned or when one learned it, each language system would be processed in the left hemisphere. Only recently, after extensive research by neuropsychologists and linguists, has it been discovered that both hemispheres are involved in language processing. Typically, languages learned within the first four or five years of life are processed in the left hemisphere, but a language learned later will involve the right hemisphere as well. The learning of a second language, even in adulthood, alters patterns of cerebral organization, even for the first-learned language. (That is, the first-learned language may shift from the left to the right hemisphere as the second language is learned.) The implications are many. It seems clear that mastery of a second language affects perceptual strategies and capacities. There is strong evidence that bilinguals are better able than monolinguals to deal with abstract aspects of language and that bilinguals have greater cognitive flexibility. Verbal skills mature more rapidly. Experience in the study of a foreign language expands the individual's sensitivity to universals of phonetic symbolism. The bilingual seems to have mastery over the two different sets of skills or strategies—the same as those monolinguals use—for each language. Experience in a foreign language develops skills for linguistic abstraction, encourages better development in auditory language skills, and seems to enhance verbal skills in general. I will stop here. My reasons for including this sample of consequences are simple. We must recognize that the common core of agreement that we share about the value of the study of a foreign language involves the acquisition of language consciousness and verbal skill. In the introductory courses to a foreign language, such an awareness is cultivated. That awareness and the correlating neurological changes allow the student to pursue cultural study with a much deeper understanding of its nature and allow the student to develop fluency in one language, two, or even three.

The cognitive changes that occur during language study are often unnoticeable. We remember our experiences in those introductory courses as involving primarily learning basic vocabulary and mastering the basics of grammar, but what students in fact do learn is much more important, much deeper, and much more applicable: they absorb the foundation of a language and cultural system other than their own, and that kind of knowledge carries over into everything else they do—even though they may not be aware of it.

If we want students to become fluent in other languages and cognizant of other cultures, we must give them a foundation. Instead of seeing such a requirement as an imposition, a limitation of a student's development, we should see it as an opportunity, a freeing of the restrictions imposed by culture-boundedness. We should make every attempt to support a foundation in language study. Every degree program in the college of sciences and humanities should reflect that foundation, whether it is acquired in high school or college. It is a foundation that promises continual growth.


© 1982 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.

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