Literature in the Modern Language Syllabus

By Sharman, Gundula M. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Literature in the Modern Language Syllabus

Sharman, Gundula M., Academic Exchange Quarterly


The study of literature has always played an important role in the acquisition of a foreign language, but increasingly students are reluctant to choose literature modules, particularly those dealing with pre-twentieth century texts. In order to make the literature of foreign places and from past ages more immediately relevant to the interests and the experiences of the students, new courses, aimed at reawakening the students' interest in literature, have been designed according to thematic rather than chronological criteria.


Current trends in Modern Language programs

When browsing through the course catalogue of any Modern Languages Department in the UK, two broad tendencies can be detected, which are of a very general nature, but which nevertheless apply to most universities to a larger or lesser degree. Firstly, literature courses, once the staple diet of a foreign language degree, are becoming less popular as compared to non-literary modules on offer such as media and communication courses or socio-historically based options. Secondly, the literature, which is taught often tends to be restricted to that of the twentieth century. Naturally, these are very sweeping statements, which can be contested without any real difficulty by particular institutions, but the growing trend gives rise to sufficient concern to cause a major rethink in the development of literature courses, particularly at Honours level. In the following I will argue that a switch from the traditional, chronological structure of modules in literature to a thematic approach will increase motivation on the part of the student, who can more easily perceive the relevance of the given literary text, and allow for interdisciplinary teaching methods by the introduction of theories from different subject areas. New approaches to teaching might also lead to a more general appreciation of literature on the part of the students and to an enrichment of the understanding of human affairs. This, after all, is the aim of all education.

Since the early seventies there has been a long-standing and well-loved debate as to whether the inclusion of literature in the foreign-language classroom is desirable and useful or not. This question is brought to a point when even native-language teachers argue that literature ought to be taught separately from language, because the particulars encountered in the appreciation of literature are more complex than mere language comprehension. Burke and Brumfit differentiate three distinct areas of potential obstacles: "to the learner of how to read literature, difficulties may appear, which result from ignorance of the language being used, of the ideas being used, or of the form being used." (1) This argument presupposes that the connections among language, ideas and form is something peculiarly literary and absent from the focus on the mastery of "pure" language, whether that be the mother-tongue or a foreign language. Be that as it may, the assumption of this argument, which defines literature as a special case in language, has trickled into the classroom in schools and is now also noticeable at university level. More and more students take a purely utilitarian approach to the study of foreign languages, and they show a growing reluctance to engage with learning activities which are not immediately perceived as useful in the "real world." The stated aim is to achieve efficient communication skills in the target language, rather than to seek knowledge and understanding of the language, the culture and mores, which shaped the people of other nations.

The case for teaching Literature

Naturally, the case for including literature in the foreign-language syllabus has been stated vociferously from the moment its value began to fall into doubt. The function of teaching literature in the Modern Languages can be divided into three categories, the importance of which is not necessarily in that order.

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