The World Language Curriculum at the Center of Postsecondary Education

By Rifkin, Benjamin | Liberal Education, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The World Language Curriculum at the Center of Postsecondary Education


Rifkin, Benjamin, Liberal Education


DESPITE RESEARCH showing the broad impact that the study of foreign languages has on the cognitive development of young people (Armstrong and Rogers 1997), and despite the importance of language expertise for America's economic and geopolitical interests in the twenty -first century, the teaching of world languages has been marginalized within the American educational system at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. The evidence for the marginalization of world language instruction is abundant, from the exclusion of world languages from learning outcomes assessment in the context of No Child Left Behind to the removal of foreign language requirements from general education programs and the elimination of world language programs from college and university curricula in response to the budgetary challenges of the past few years.

It is possible that the marginalization of world language instruction is a product of the pervasive advertising of products that promise to deliver fluency in a box, suggesting that the purchaser of one or another CD series will be able to "speak Spanish like a diplomat" or "woo an Italian model" with only minimal effort. The success of such advertising - in in-flight magazines, for example - lends support to the notion that one can simply "pick up" a language, despite the fact that we generally don't expect people to "pick up" other performative skills, such as playing basketball or playing the piano, without substantial practice and coaching. The impact of the marketing may be reflected in the decisions of some school boards to replace live world language teachers with site licenses for commercially produced foreign language software (see, for example, Rundquist 2010). A similarly pernicious trend obtains in the postsecondary context, where world language programs are simply eliminated (without the benefit of site licenses), as has been observed at institutions such as the Uni' versify of Albany or Louisiana State University. Although some universities believe they (and their students) can do without language expertise, our economy and our national government clearly cannot do without it.

The trend to eliminate or outsource world language instruction comes at a time when the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has established, through its Proficiency Guidelines and Standards for Foreign Language Learning, both performance benchmarks for the assessment of learning outcomes and guidelines for curricula development - achievements not observed in some other academic disciplines that are considered more "mission central" by many institutions. In Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 2lst Century, the National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project (2006) presents a set of standards that constitute a remarkably accurate reflection of the Essential Learning Outcomes established through the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007). The ACTFL standards identify the following five content areas for foreign language study, called "the five Cs": Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. Each of these areas of focus for the world languages curriculum correlates with the LEAP goals, as described below.

The five Cs and the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes

With regard to second-language communication skills, students in the world languages classroom must develop interactive and presentational speaking skills, interpretative skills in listening and reading, as well as writing skills in the target language (i.e., the language students are studying). The devel* opment of these skills has a significant impact on the improvement of communication skills in the students' native language, as described by Cunningham and Graham (2000), for example. Indeed, research on the effect of advanced foreign language instruction shows students' awareness of a direct correlation between their study of rhetoric in a foreign language and their use of rhetoric in speech and writing in English (Rifkin 2000). …

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