Saturday, August 29, 2009

For languages, it's not about what colleges should teach, but how

Stanley Fish's recent post in the New York Times, entitled What Should Colleges Teach?, asks just that. The article is in reaction to a report by a right-wing group, founded by Lynne Cheney, called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA.

Professor Fish found himself surprised that he was nodding along with many of the conclusions of this right-wing group.

I think they all missed the boat on language learning.

Here are Professor Fish's highlights from the report as they relate to language learning:
In [ACTA's report], the 100 colleges and universities are ranked on a scale from A to F based on whether students are required to take courses in seven key areas — composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and natural or physical science.
OK, I'm with you this far on the language-learning bit; let's learn some foreign languages.

But ACTA falls into the water when they get to their scoring method:
Credit for requiring instruction in a foreign language will not be given for fewer than three semesters of study because it takes that long to acquire “competency at the intermediate level.”
Intermediate competency—as measured by U.S. colleges, no less—is utterly worthless. Applying the same standard elsewhere, why shouldn't college students only need intermediate competency in English as well? Because it's bloody damn stupid, that's why.

And here's where Professor Fish make his splash overboard:
The rationale behind these exclusions is compelling: mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject.
He's just off the wall with this one; in languages, you can focus on whatever content you feel like and it doesn't make a difference—as long as you're getting exposure to the target language.
You can tell when you are being taught a mathematical function or a scientific procedure or a foreign language or the uses of the subjunctive and when you are being taught something else.
He's right, here, but it's something of an unfortunate fact as far as language learning goes; that, in most language-learning programs, you can always tell that you're learning a language is something I'd identify as a problem, rather than merely stating it as a fact.

Here's how Professor Fish sums up ACTA's suggestions in respect of language learning:
With respect to … foreign language instruction …, ACTA is simply saying, Don’t slight the core of the discipline.
Uh, not really. With respect to foreign-language instruction, ACTA is saying "Let's do a half-assed job". In what other subject is it OK to aim at intermediate proficiency and have that scored as an A? I've give it a D, or maybe a C-.

Professor Fish's ultimate argument is that, in a course like literature, professors should be able to pick the material they think is relevant, rather than being forced to teach some set body of material. The same holds true for languages, but how many Spanish teachers feel compelled to throw in some Don Quijote somewhere along the line, and how many students don't care to bother with the Spanish of a few hundred years ago? (My hand is up.) Indeed, I'd take it one farther than Professor Fish; why should the teacher even be picking content for students in a language course at all? Let the students pick whatever content they want in the target language, and let the teacher help them find and comprehend it.

Links:
What Should Colleges Teach? [New York Times]
What will they learn? [Scribd]
American Council for Trustees and Alumni

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