This is a very tough post to write, because I have to confront a collision of legitimate values I hold strongly. I just received an invitation to sign the petition here. I am not going to sign, even though I am the world’s biggest fan of learning languages. I regret that among the six with which I have some competence, none is really foreign (to me, that is, non-Indo-European). I think real command of at least one foreign language, meaning conversational comfort, writing a business letter, and reading a novel, not passing a written exam, should be a graduation requirement at any college that respects the idea of a liberal education. Requirement, period. I deplore the feeble command my students have of languages they have studied for two and three semesters in courses. And by the way, every new language is easier than the one before.
This is all important for many familiar reasons. First, on the principle that, if you didn’t have an environment you couldn’t have a self, and without a background a figure is impossible, you don’t know your own language until you learn another and see how it could be different, and what matters about the way it is. Second, it’s a big world out there and travel is enormously enriched if you can talk to people. Third, there’s good stuff to read, and song lyrics to understand, that aren’t translated yet. Granted, if you’re going to know only one language, being a native English speaker is an enormous piece of good fortune, and English will take you around more places and let you read more stuff than any other. But a second language is a cave of wonders and treasure, and a doorway to priceless experiences.
However, taking a course in a classroom is about the last way I would go about learning a new language; it’s impossibly slow, and you don’t get to talk enough. Get a grammar and a dictionary and some audio tapes, and just sit down and do it; start reading fiction as soon as you can, and try to find a native or expert speaker to talk with when you’ve made some headway: vacation dans le pays and force yourself to speak *. You do have to believe you can do this, and Americans broadly lack this confidence, but that learned helplessness cripples them in classroom language instruction as well.
As regards the petition, I should be careful to distinguish learning a language from studying its literature or learning the discipline of linguistics. I will now go out on a limb and claim that academic credit should not be given for language courses, though if high school has failed, the college should do everything it can to help students pass my graduation requirement. Speaking a language is not an intellectual skill comparable to what one learns in courses like Victorian British Literature, Physics of the Solid State, Complex Function Theory, Late Medieval France, and like that. My main evidence is that six-year-olds readily prattle in one or even two languages (if lucky enough to have a bilingual family), and six-year-olds are not college material.
What language professors study and teach–linguistics, literature, phonetics, language history–is totally in the appropriate orbit of a liberal arts university, so I’m opposed to just whacking away at these departments. The serious mismatch between PhD generation and suitable job opportunities throughout the humanities, aggravated by faculty habituation to a cheap research assistant labor force, is a larger problem and needs to be worked out on another battlefield.
My main problem here is captured in a conversation I had a few years ago with a Romance language prof here.
Me: Hey, have you guys ever evaluated some of the online and computer-based language courses like Babel, Rosetta Stone, Living Language…?
He: We need those teaching jobs for our graduate students.
I was, naïvely, shocked; I thought the point of language courses was for students to learn languages, and if there’s a better way than our hoary habits, obviously (i) we have a duty to find out what it is and (ii) use it. Deliberate ignorance about learning technologies, in order to support graduate students or for any other reason, is abusive of the undergraduates who should be learning as much as they possibly can in every hour, by whatever method works best. I’m a pretty good lecturer, and the ego boost of having a roomful of students write down everything I said was a real trip, but the science is in about telling content live in front of a blackboard or powerpoints (it has very poor learning outcomes), so I had to stop and adopt other ways to teach that work better.
I’ll sign a petition to protect the humanities against nitwit, philistine costcutting. When we do the appropriate research, if we find sit-down classes build the most functional language skill per student hour (I doubt it, but I will yield to real evidence) I’ll sign one like this. But in current circumstances, this feels too much like special pleading for leaf-raking employment. Dear colleagues: please do the research I asked my colleague about, and use what you learn. However it comes out, it will greatly raise your standing to claim society’s resources, and I will be able to support your demands.
*I have to mention Bob Frank’s brilliant trick for this: memorize and rehearse some jokes. Having foreigners laugh at something you’ve just said in their language is immensely reinforcing, and because you know where you’re going when you start, your stage fright is greatly reduced.