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From the Editor

Languages Required

Reprinted from the Summer 2012 MLA Newsletter

This past February, the MLA Executive Council issued its “Statement on Language Requirements for Doctoral Programs in English”:

The MLA urges doctoral programs in English to require all PhD candidates to demonstrate, at either the admission or the exit point, advanced competence in at least one language other than English. It also urges doctoral programs to offer funding and support to students who study additional languages beyond this requirement.
Those who pursue a PhD in English are engaged in deep study of a language and its literary and cultural expressions. Most likely they will teach works in translation during their career. Knowledge of several languages and the process of language learning offer more than research tools enabling students to read primary and secondary materials in their original form. They promote consciousness of and sensitivity to both the multilingual contexts in which anglophone literatures are written and the work of translation in which contemporary writers and readers engage on a daily basis. Proficiency in more than one language promotes the cultural literacy essential to teaching in the global university of the future.
As someone who began studying French in the seventh grade and who became bilingual (with Spanish) at age sixteen, I viewed this suggested requirement as a fairly obvious one for a scholar-teacher of any language. After all, how can we possibly understand language acquisition, literary expression, linguistic variation, and so on if we do not have at least one other language with which to compare our own? Although I recognized the pragmatic difficulties in expecting students to fulfill this requirement (indeed, the MLA has just created a task force to study doctoral education in part because it is concerned with the increasing time to degree), I did not anticipate resistance to the concept itself (being bilingual makes me think that way). Some in the Twitterverse and blogosphere have critiqued the statement’s recommendation, questioning its relevance to scholarly work, teaching, conference presentations, and even cultural literacy itself. From their perspective, languages were not required as passports to other literatures and cultures, and they weren’t even necessary to understand the English language qua language.

In Babel No More, Michael Erard notes that English may be the only language that has ever had more nonnative than native speakers (9). That the world sees English as the most important second language to acquire would seem to many people to be reason to let monolingual Anglophones off the hook, but it is perhaps the most compelling reason for them to acquire another language. PhDs in English will teach students (at both the graduate and undergraduate level) who are native speakers of many world languages. These students will have the benefit of translingual and transcultural competence from the get-go, and their approaches to the study of works in the English language will be informed by their native language experience.

The point of knowing a language other than English is not (necessarily) to speak to students in that language but rather to understand from the inside what language acquisition is. If we accept that advanced literacy is the goal of all English classes for native speakers, then it is advantageous when the instructor looks at English as a language, with its own set of peculiarities, rather than as a seemingly transparent universal medium. It is often said that the study of an additional language causes one to look at one’s native language in an entirely different light. No longer assumed to be natural, the native language reveals its structures and its cultures when contrasted with other languages.

The extent to which we see language and culture as inextricable will determine our willingness to accept knowledge of a nonnative language as key to a full understanding of our cultural location. There is nothing comforting about that realization. Imagine learning a language formally and then coming into contact with native speakers who use it in ways you haven’t anticipated. You find out the hard way that greeting someone in an elevator is either required or frowned on. The words you use to ask questions as you are trying to get to know someone either open doors or slam them shut. Frankly, it’s risky (not to mention anxiety producing) to navigate another language and its culture(s), and we can’t possibly learn all the world’s linguistic codes. What we learn instead is the difference language makes, and I contend we do so only when we speak more than one language.

How does this relate to what English PhDs teach and study (literature, film, and other textualities of all genres and media)? Anglophone literatures are written in multilingual contexts and circulate in multilingual cultures. Authors of English-language works have been studied in other countries, and the critical apparatus in languages other than English on these writers could bring new insights to American scholars. To understand literature written in English is to think about its place on the world stage, even if most of our interlocutors know (some) English.

Implicit in the MLA statement is the contention that a utilitarian function should not be the primary factor in determining whether PhDs in English would do well to invest time in second-language proficiency. This is also my colleague Doug Steward’s view in his analysis of language requirements for English PhDs (213–14). Translingual and transcultural competencies are key. These competencies would best be demonstrated on application to a PhD program in the English language rather than as exit requirements. In other words, a reasonable way for doctoral programs to respond to the MLA statement would be to make it clear that current undergraduates who hope to enter doctoral programs should devote time to acquire advanced competence in language(s) before they begin graduate study.

I’ve always noticed that my colleagues in English departments who know another language well seem to just “get it.” They tend to make connections with those of us in language departments that they might not otherwise have made. They encourage their students to study additional languages. They sign up to guide study-abroad programs. These colleagues understand why multilingualism enhances teaching and research in one’s primary discipline. Perhaps they can explain it (or defend it) better than I can. As I asked the historian Erik Loomis, does it matter that only residents of England and its former colonies can hold the highest degree in the humanities and still be monolingual? What advantages do English professors see in knowing other languages well? I’d like to hear from you on this question. I promise to keep an open, code-switching mind.

Rosemary G. Feal signature


In an essay published after I wrote this column, L. D. Burnett provides evidence that the debates about the relevance of language study have been going on for over one hundred years.

Works Cited

Burnett, L. D. “The Foreign Language Requirement.” U.S. Intellectual History. Soc. for U.S. Intellectual History, 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More. New York: Free, 2012. Print.

Loomis, Erik. “On Languages and Academic Gatekeeping.” Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Lawyers, Guns, and Money, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

MLA Executive Council. “Statement on Language Requirements for Doctoral Programs in English.” Modern Language Association. MLA, 6 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

Steward, Doug. “The Foreign Language Requirement in English Doctoral Programs.” Profession (2006): 203–18. Print.
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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
2013 Posts
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.