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From the President

Through Languages to Literacy

Reprinted from the Spring 2011 MLA Newsletter

These are difficult times for our profession. Our annual convention put a spotlight on the topic The Academy in Hard Times and the deteriorating conditions for both instructors and students in higher education: the erosion of tenure; the growing number of faculty members without job security or full-time employment; challenges to faculty governance; and program closures, which both restrict student opportunities and eliminate faculty positions. The MLA draws attention to these developments and, especially through our leadership in the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, promotes strategies to resist them. This activism is at the core of our mission; indeed, our constitution specifies the purpose of the MLA as “further[ing] the common interests of teachers” of the modern languages and literatures. Our common interests surely include preserving tenure, ensuring job security, maintaining conditions conducive for teaching and learning, and upholding faculty governance of degree programs.

The battles over these issues are currently framed by budgetary concerns, and not only in North America; the austerity measures in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe have produced restricted access to higher education (in the form of tuition hikes) as well as reductions in humanities offerings. To resist the degradation of working conditions in higher education, we have to insist on the connection to learning conditions for students. Fortunately, recent reports provide some hard data that can help us make our case to the public.

In December 2010, the MLA released its triennial report on enrollments in languages other than English in US colleges and universities (www.mla.org/2009_enrollmentsurvey). Between 2006 and 2009, enrollments in language courses increased by 6.6% (Furman, Goldberg, and Lusin). Students are evidently clamoring for more opportunities for second language acquisition. Enrollments in each of the ten most studied languages have increased, in some cases dramatically (Arabic is up 46.3%) and in some cases moderately (German is up 2.2%). Yet the report also shows a drop-off in graduate enrollments, a warning that there may not be sufficient numbers of language teachers in the future. I urge all MLA members to study the report to understand the state of second-language learning. Equipping ourselves with facts is all the more important because budget-cutting administrators are prone to claim that interest in languages is declining. The MLA report proves the contrary. Individual programs can see their enrollments over time in the “Language Enrollment Database, 1958–2009” (www.mla.org/flsurvey_search), and if a particular program sees declining enrollments, it would be necessary to examine local circumstances and the nature of the curriculum. The recommendations of the MLA report Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World can provide guidance for program redesign. Students clearly want to learn languages; we have to make sure that our programs are successful.

Hold on to that snapshot of second-language enrollments in college and consider now another report that tells us about reading skills in high school. In December 2010, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States, the 2009 results for the Program for International Student Assessment. PISA measures the achievements of fifteen-year-old students in literacy, mathematics, and science; the study paid particular attention to reading. For US educators, the results are far from heartening. The United States ranks only fourteenth in reading (26). High school readers perform significantly better in top-ranking Shanghai-China, South Korea, and Finland and in near-the-top Hong Kong, Singapore, and Canada. (The report devotes particular attention to Canada and to educational reform in Ontario [65–81].) Understanding poor performance in secondary education is crucial, since the insufficiently prepared high school student turns into the poor reader in our college classrooms. The report touches on many factors that contribute to high school education. One concerns me in particular: what kind of second-language preparation do students receive before college?

It is in this question of language that the two above topics—second-language learning and (first-language) reading skills—converge. According to the National Foreign Language Center report Resource Guide to Developing Linguistic and Cultural Competency in the United States, studying a foreign language can improve one’s native language skills and contribute to better performance in other academic subjects (Wang, Jackson, Mana, Liau, and Evans 7). Yet foreign language opportunities are rare in US elementary schools, where early learning could have an important impact. To put this in an international context: language study begins in the Netherlands at age five, in Singapore at age six, and in Finland at age seven. In the United States the starting age is typically fourteen (8). Most industrialized countries require early study of one foreign language (and several require early study of more than one); in the United States, in 2008–09, only eleven states and the District of Columbia had any second-language study as a high school requirement (Ingold and Wang 3).

One predictable result is that some 80% of Americans describe themselves as monolingual, but more than 50% of Europeans older than fifteen can carry on a conversation in a second language. Here, however, something else needs pointing out. Second-language learning enhances first-language abilities. Yet US students have far fewer and less-articulated opportunities to learn another language than do their peers in other industrialized countries. It comes as no surprise then that their English skills suffer: this helps explain the disappointing PISA results. Our deficiencies in second-language learning are turning into a first-language literacy problem. This shows up in the reading problems of students entering college.

This literacy challenge brings me back to my opening topic, the hard times we face in the academy. To make the argument to the public for faculty teaching conditions, we need to emphasize the importance of student learning, particularly in the language fields. Whether our specialty involves interpreting complex literary works or enhancing student ability to speak in the idiom of another culture, we are all language teachers. The success of the struggle to defend our professional status, our prerogatives within institutions, and the place of the humanities in higher education depends on our ability to demonstrate to the public the foundational importance of all language learning.

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Works Cited


Furman, Nelly, David Goldberg, and Natalia Lusin. Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009. Modern Language Association. MLA, Dec. 2010. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

Ingold, C. W., and S. C. Wang. The Teachers We Need: Transforming World Language Education in the United States. National Foreign Language Center. Natl. Foreign Lang. Center, 2010. Web. 4 Jan. 2011.

“Language Enrollment Database, 1958–2009.” Modern Language Association. MLA, Dec. 2010. Web. 4 Jan. 2011.

MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. Modern Language Association. MLA, May 2007. Web. 4 Jan. 2011.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States. OECD, 2010. Web. 4 Jan. 2011.

Wang, S. C., F. H. Jackson, M. Mana, R. Liau, and B. Evans. Resource Guide to Developing Linguistic and Cultural Competency in the United States. National Foreign Language Center. Natl. Foreign Lang. Center, 2010. Web. 4 Jan. 2011.
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Russell Berman
2011–12 MLA President Russell Berman
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