Thursday, January 24, 2019

Notes on Languages

The recent MLA findings on foreign language programs didn’t shock me.  

It found that language offerings at American colleges have dropped dramatically over the last several years.  I can attest that from an administrative perspective, languages offer unique challenges.

When you have a critical mass of enrollments, you can offer just about anything.  We have healthy enrollments in Spanish, for instance, and have for a long time. We have full-time faculty in Spanish, and they don’t struggle to make load.  That isn’t true for other languages.

Attrition rates from the first semester to the second, and then beyond, are relatively high in languages.  That means that if we have, say, fifteen students in a single section of 101, we may be stuck with running a 102 smaller than we would usually allow it to run.  That makes it difficult to take a flyer on a new language offering, or to maintain languages when the 101 level sections run small.

Languages are subject to fads.  French isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be; neither is German.  Japanese does okay, but it isn’t the hot ticket it was a few years ago.  American Sign Language remains relatively strong. But really, when it comes to enrollments, there’s Spanish, and then there’s everything else.  And while it’s commonplace to put languages together in a single “Languages” department, they aren’t interchangeable. If student interest shifts from, say, French to ASL, I can’t just tell the professor to adjust.  (“Yes, we hired you for German, but how’s your Mandarin?”) That means that outside of Spanish, we have to rely on adjuncts.

Setting matters, though.  My kids’ high school has four full-time Latin teachers.  Brookdale doesn’t have one. For whatever reason -- I suspect the halo effect generated by one charismatic hire -- Latin is hot at the local public high school.  It’s a mystery. Although I advised both of my kids to take Spanish, on the grounds of usefulness, they both chose Latin. Kids today...

There’s an argument for looking at ESL as a foreign language.  For the students taking it, it is. But bureaucratically, it’s kind of a mix of foreign language, remediation, and its own unique thing.  I suspect it’s harder to teach than other languages, since the incoming students aren’t all starting from the same language. Locally, for instance, we’ll have students whose first language is Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, or any number of others.  In Spanish 101, by contrast, nearly every student is starting with English. When everyone is starting from the same language, the instructor knows what to compare things to. But when some are starting from, say, Russian, which doesn’t have articles as we know them, and others are starting from Spanish, explaining English articles requires multiple approaches.

The folks who study ESL also report that what they call “generation 1.5” brings unique challenges.  That’s the inelegant term for students who came to America as children and have spent at least a few years here.  They often have pretty good colloquial spoken English, but weak writing (and sometimes reading) skills in both languages.  That’s very different from the student who arrives as an adult with a solid education in her native language. The former may need much more help on structure, but less on vocabulary, with the reverse being true for the latter.  Somehow, the same instructor has to help both at the same time. That’s a task.

Like the other languages, ESL is subject to political winds.  Given tighter immigration, I wouldn’t be surprised to see ESL enrollments start to slip over the next few years.  Still, the primary issue there is demand, rather than supply, so I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

I’d love to see the MLA work more closely with TESOL and do for ESL what the completion agenda has done for remedial math and English.  (That may be the most jargon-y sentence I’ve written this month…) We’re not there yet. In the meantime, there’s Spanish, and then there’s everything else.