Friday, February 15, 2013

What's the Value of Foreign Language?

Bolchazy-Carducci is one of the more prolific publishers of Classical texts, and they've done a lot of great work for Greek and Latin teachers that has helped to make our jobs easier.  In their February eLitterae newsletter, Sherwin Little's Little's Bits column "A Latin teacher wears many hats..." addresses the complexities of a Latin teacher's job, which often requires us to serve in part as a "public relations specialist" to help keep our numbers strong.  Now that it's time for students to start signing up for next year's classes, the question of why one should choose to study Latin is again placed under the microscope, and the recent news that the Pope's resignation was delivered in Latin has been in wide circulation as more proof of its importance (no fewer than 5 colleagues have independently emailed me news about this in the past week!).  I certainly do believe that PR is a big part of game in this field, as anyone who does JCL club work knows all too well.

At any rate, Little's column today reminds me of an article a few colleagues and I read last summer, Bryan Caplan's "The Numbers Speak:  Foreign Language Requirements are a Waste of Time and Money".  In short, Caplan argues that learning a foreign language is irrelevant and unnecessary in this day and age.  He backs off somewhat at the end of the article, confessing that he actually "got a lot of value" through his German studies, but he thinks that the majority of Americans don't have the same experience (if interested, I suggest reading through the comments to the article for a myriad of varying opinions).  It's a preposterous argument, but it also raises some very interesting questions about the state of affairs in foreign language vis-à-vis the growing importance technology in education, and it's clear that it's not just Latin that's under fire.

What's interesting here, to my mind, is the perceived value of foreign language in our culture.  Foreign language teachers can easily, even if not effectively, dismiss a poor argument like Caplan's from our point of view as language teachers, but it also underscores the challenges that we face in creating a valuable classroom experience for our students.  I read Caplan's article as a call for foreign language teachers to defend why we believe that what we do is important.  If we accept the challenge, it's a great exercise for us to do some self-reflection and actually articulate these reasons, rather than simply dismiss Caplan's claims, without further thought.  Cf. a similar challenge issued by Andrew Hacker in his article "Is Algebra Necessary?" in the NYT last July that math teachers have taken up.

In the comments, several people have asked if Caplan's argument applies to all academic subjects in our schools, like algebra and science, given that most Americans don't use them on a daily basis.  I don't think so, though.  Math and science are privileged right now (and being a former engineer I'll never say that they shouldn't be), and as such they receive quite a deal of publicity, especially at our school, which held a very public STEM day last year, complete with all kinds of interactive events and activities.  Even the arts have frequent public showcases and special assemblies here, but foreign language (and indeed the humanities in general!) has no such days for public celebration, where kids get to share their work pridefully with the community.  And though kids do enjoy their foreign language classes, in general, this very culture that promotes science has also taught our students to undervalue language study, in comparison to the more "popular" subjects.  I suffered from this myself in in high school, when I loaded up on math and science, while loathing my Spanish classes, since I saw relatively little value in it.  Thanks to the growing popularity of STEM work and now President Obama's endorsement of STEM education, administrations aren't going to automatically put foreign language departments on equal footing with the math and science anytime soon.  The burden, then, is on us to make language study more worthwhile.  We have to do a better job of earning attention and making students want to take more languages classes for reasons other than financial gain or status.  Even the Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's NYT article on "Why Bilinguals are Smarter", though insightful, is pragmatic and so doesn't do much to bolster the intrinsic appeal that language study can offer.

Ultimately, though, pitting physics against Spanish and chemistry against Latin is a loosing battle, not because the languages can't win, but because education shouldn't be about competition. Where Caplan's argument fails most — and even where much of the argumentation for taking Latin errs, I think — is in the compartmentalization of academia, in treating foreign language in isolation from other subjects.  Language study will not evolve, unless we change our approach for teaching and learning them.

Caplan's compartmentalization doesn't facilitate community, which languages necessarily depend on.  The trouble that language programs have found themselves in, whether now or in past generations (e.g. Latin in the 1960s), seem to be a direct result of the lack of a strong communal focus that leaves students feeling unengaged and unfulfilled.  Today, there are a number of great tools that can help us to strengthen them within the classroom, e.g. PLNs, blogs, digital storytelling, and I'm sure there exist other ideas to explore that I'm not even aware of.  I see no reason my foreign language courses can't work beside English, history, art, and even math and science courses to do more connected work through the use of these tools.  Despite the fact that we don't teach Latin as a living language (though there are arguments about oral Latin), we derive the strength of our program from the strong community of students and teachers here.  I don't expect many of our students to pursue advanced degrees in Classics or linguistics, but I'm confident that the majority of them won't believe in 20 years that what they're doing right now is is pointless.  In fact, a significant fraction of our Latin students begin study of a third language in 9th grade solely because they've enjoyed learning how language works.

Several colleagues at our school have questioned the technological directions that we're taking, but for me, that's really what all this "technofuss" is about:  community and interconnectedness.  Or as Little put it, creating a "buzz" in our classes.  Having to have relied on the strength of our community for the sake of numbers in the past, I'm a big believer in its importance for engagement.  With all the new tools at our disposal now, we can build the kinds of communities that we never imagined in the past.  We've necessarily had to adopt various strategies for creating a strong Latin culture within our program without technology, and now that we have new tools, we can do an ever better job on an even larger scale.  I'm excited to put on yet one more hat, and I hope that others do the same.

Over the next few months, I plan on detailing some of the new directions with technology that our department would like to take, as we plan for our 1:1 program in the fall.  But for now I welcome others to share their own ideas for developing stronger communities and promoting more engagement between students and even classes.