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Everybody Speaks English

08 Oct Posted by in Academics | Comments
Everybody Speaks English

The word is that the administration of SUNY Albany has essentially closed all modern language programs except Spanish and (after current students finish up) fired the faculty. The other programs were French, Russian, and Italian.

It’s already been clear, in school districts as well as some colleges, that cutting global education, including languages, is a popular response to economic crisis. And it makes sense: clearly the rest of the world will stop bothering us while we lick our wounds, so we can safely concentrate on domestic stuff.

Sarcasm aside, moves like this are very troubling. We need more language capacity, not less. Universities have a vital role here, not only as direct sources of training but also as pressure points toward correcting a tremendous national deficiency: the absence of sufficient serious language training before college, when among other things young brains are particularly well wired for the experience.

It is also true, however, that universities and language instructors must be more than defensive. We need active recognition of shifting language parameters, with some older staples less essential, and needs for modest investment in newer candidates recognized (investments, I should add, that will usually quickly pay off in additional student interest, as experiences in Chinese, Arabic and others increasingly suggest).

And whatever the languages, we need broader curricular initiatives that encourage students not only to take a ritual year or so, but to gain and implement active usage. Again, there is encouraging recent experience. Good programs in global affairs can attract students who are not only open to language learning but eager (or at least reasonably eager) to gain enough fluency to converse and read not just in the language classes but in other reaches of their programs.

Recently I had the occasion to present a new Masters degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies to our governing board. The curriculum includes serious language requirements (or needs for compensatory training) in at least one of four relevant regional languages. Some Board members were inclined to urge that a track be available for English-only students, but they were persuaded that serious language competency was essential for any real work, or professional activity, in these areas. More recently still one Board member, who had talked with others with regional experience, generously offered that I had been right: you simply can’t go adequately beneath the surface without a language commitment. It’s a message with wider applicability, and my guess is that Albany will find this out fairly quickly.