Language Mission Project: A Report of Findings

By Maxwell, David; Johnston, Joseph S., Jr. et al. | Liberal Education, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Language Mission Project: A Report of Findings


Maxwell, David, Johnston, Joseph S., Jr., Spalding, Jane R., Liberal Education


LANGUAGE LEARNING is in crisis in this country, and colleges and universities are constrained by a host of factors in their efforts to respond. These factors include uneven levels of student preparation; rapidly shifting patterns of language enrollments; the labor-intensiveness of classroom-based language instruction; mismatches between and among program design, institutional aspirations, faculty interests, and student goals; the scarcity of institutional resources; a lack of comprehensive attention at the institutional level to the improvement of foreign language programs; and-frequently compounding all these problems-pervasive disagreement and confusion as to what, if any, important role language teaching and learning play in the context of institutional mission.

In the spring of 1996, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Foreign Language Center at the Johns Hopkins University (NFLC) launched the Language Mission Project (LMP), an initiative to help a set of competitively selected institutions address these challenges. Funded by the Henry R. Luce Foundation, this project engaged the participating colleges and universities (see sidebar) in a two-year process of self-study, planning, and program reform. In this article, we describe the underlying assumptions and structure of the project and highlight some of what has been accomplished and learned.

Project assumptions

A focus on goals was the project cornerstone. It is axiomatic that at moments of challenge and seeming chaos we most need a sense of what we are trying to accomplish. Selecting a goal or goals for an institution's language program will hardly ever be easy-if only because it involves hard choices. Ensuring that the goal or goals chosen are the right ones-and command the kind of support that ensures they can be met-is even harder. Yet these, we think, are the first and essential tasks for language programs today and for the institutions that offer them.

A second strong assumption governing this work was that challenges as numerous, complex, and deeply rooted institutionally and societally as those facing language programs cannot be dealt with adequately at the departmental or program level. They require a broader process of analysis, negotiation, and consensus building. This process recognizes the institution's responsibility to help language programs define appropriate feasible and compelling goals-and then to accomplish them effectively and efficiently.

The project proposed consideration of four possible goals-or "missions"-developed by the NFLC:

* the expertise mission: preparing majors for graduate study and futures as language professionals.

* the general education mission: offering language courses for purposes of teaching students something about languages and exposing them to foreign cultures.

* the applied mission: equipping students with languages so that they can function as professionals among non-English speakers here and/or abroad.

* the heritage mission: providing instruction in languages other than English designed for students who come from homes and cultures where these languages are spoken.

AAC&U and NFLC encouraged participating institutions to try to reach more clarity as to which of these (or possibly other) purposes they wanted their language programs to serve. As a catalyst for discussion, this descriptive taxonomy proved helpful on many campuses.

Finally, the project organizers emphasized the increasing need for demonstrable program effectiveness and for efficiency in the use of time, money, and other scarce resources; the promise of technology in helping achieve both these ends; and the contribution that inter-institutional cooperation-consortiacan make in solving some of the problems now facing language programs, particularly in offering instruction in Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and other less commonly taught languages (LCTLs). …

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