Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Wanted Languages Dead or Alive

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Wanted Languages Dead or Alive

Article excerpt

This article considers the impact of global business and government agendas on tbreign language teaching in the United States. The desire to close the 'language gap' in American education, a laudable goal to be sure, is beginning to compromise the traditional humanistic study of language and literature, epitomized by the study of Greek and Latin. Meanwhile, increased emphasis on teaching Arabic has brought to the fore issues of multiculturalism and the value of a liberal education in the context of national security issues. The authors argue for a broad range of goals in language education, including the grasp of cultural issues besides linguistic competence.

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In the modern American university, the importance of having a 'global perspective' and the importance of 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' has been sounded repeatedly. (1) These ideas are also touted regularly in government and in the corporate world, where the economic realities of a 'flat world' have produced new problems and new opportunities. As is often the case, however, when academic, business, and government leaders begin to articulate their agendas for addressing these problems and opportunities, it is discovered that they are not really talking about the same things at all. Few things illustrate this situation as clearly as the recent upsurge of interest in America in the study of foreign languages. Of particular importance for its impact on higher education is the promotion of certain relatively underrepresented languages that have suddenly been thrust into importance by contemporary world events, especially, for different reasons, Arabic and Chinese. While a greater enthusiasm for the study of foreign languages must be good news to all language teachers, it would be even better if that meant the commitment of more resources to the study of languages from the areas (business and government) who have identified those needs. But more often than not, mandates arrive unfunded or underfunded, necessitating the re-allocation of academic resources, especially in the humanities; and when new resources are added by the government, as in the Title VII initiatives, strings tend to be attached that redirect the academic goals of humanities programs, harness them to political and economic agendas marginal to the spirit of the humanities, and, in some cases, even censor professors in their classrooms and publications. (2) When corporate and government interests promote language teaching as part of multicultural education, this typically means conferring on students linguistic and cultural tools so that they can function in an environment where English is not spoken, avoid committing intercultural gaffes, and better identify the needs of potential niche markets. Humanists, however, typically understand a global perspective to be a preparation for living in a multicultural reality; that is, to think as members of a pluralistic, democratic society, and as global citizens. The role of language education in this view is considerably broader, seeing language not just as a neutral instrument for social interaction, but as a complex and problematic subject for reflection and analysis. Is there still a case to be made for this more traditional humanistic enterprise alongside (not instead of) the more practical language goals mandated by government and business?

There is at present an ongoing debate about language education and its goals, including the special forums and publications sponsored by the modern Language Association and the Association for Departments of Foreign Languages. (3) The authors of this article are coming to these issues from disciplines that put them on opposite ends of the problems facing language curricula today: on the one hand, Classics, which, as the purveyor of 'dead' languages, is frequently targeted in the re-allocation of language teaching resources when the interests of business and government are being foregrounded; on the other hand, Arabic language programs, which have enjoyed increased funding with the new interest in the languages and cultures of the Middle East, but have become a different kind of target. …

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