Thursday, December 16, 2010

Foreign Language in College? Depends on the Outcomes

In today's WSJ Curmudgeon Jim Sollisch argues against foreign language requirements: students don't learn to function in their languages, and other courses are more commercially valuable.

How does SWNID respond? That Sollisch has a point about the way that most colleges teach and most students learn foreign languages, which argues for something different from both than what he proposes. We suggest, in other words, a tertium quid.

Sollisch says his daughter studied French but can barely read a menu. Probably so. Her college French teachers likely had as little interest in teaching conversational French as she had in learning it. The profs' real interest was French literature and teaching the same to grad students and advanced undergrads. Like most humans, college language profs want to create others in their own image.

Sollisch says that his son took Swahili as an easy way to knock out his undergrad requirement (which makes us inclined to guess where Sollisch Junior went to college, but that's a matter for Northwestern University to take up). So he made a bad choice because he reflected daddy's indifference. No surprise there.

We think there's a more excellent way than simply indulging Sollisch's cynicism. There's Drake University's approach.

Note quite a decade ago, Drake dismantled its foreign language department after honestly concluding that its students were learning about what Sollisch says they learn. But they didn't stop trying to teach students to speak other languages. Now Drake has a department of World Languages and Cultures. Students who study languages meet in very small groups led by native speakers, mostly foreign students at Drake, supervised by profs who do instruction on language acquisition, culture and such. Examinations are oral. The program ruthlessly pursues a single outcome: ability to speak the language and understand it when it is spoken.

Obviously there's no sitting back and slipping by in such a program. So much the worse for indifferent students like Sollisch's son, who work hard not to learn. But students sign on for college so that someone will force them to learn what they wouldn't otherwise, ci?

Somehow we think that such a program will be at least as valuable as a course in web design or some other commercial skill du jour. So much for your Weltschmerz, Mr. Sollisch.


Christine said...

I think ultimately the best way to learn a foreign language is to be forced to depend on it the way one does when living in another culture.

However, it's both expensive and impractical to do this and I don't most of us will ever use the languages we took in college, but so what. I took 4 semesters of German, but I have never been to Germany and most likely, will never visit. I used my German a little bit when in a different country years ago but it was hardly worth it if that's how one measures the value of study.

However, I enjoyed it and got a small peak into another culture and improved my English along the way.

If you are going to judge the study or foreign language by it's commercial application, the only languages we should teach in the US are Spanish and Mandarin.

JB in CA said...

I remember a story about graduate students complaining at a department meeting about how their department's language requirement had no practical use and only slowed down their progress. One of the faculty members disagreed, saying that knowledge of a foreign language was more relevant to their scholarly pursuits than they might think. For instance, if he had known French, he would not have been at such a disadvantage when he attended a lecture by a French-speaking scholar the previous month. One of the students asked him if he had to satisfy the language requirement in French when he was in grad school, to which the professor answered triumphantly, Of course!—without any sense of irony.