We’ve gathered at the B1G Conference Center for the Shared Less Commonly Taught Languages Symposium to advance Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) and discuss the progress we are making on two Mellon-funded grants, one hosted by the University of Chicago, one hosted by Michigan State University. These grants are committed, among other things, to enhance collaboration across institutions to support innovative ways to enable more students to reach higher levels of proficiency in languages that are not commonly taught.
This year’s symposium began with a keynote address by Stéphane Charitos, Director of the Language Resource Center at Columbia University. He offered a sobering account of the steady decline in enrollments in the languages more broadly and insisted that all language programs will be facing the challenges we are attempting to redress in our LCTL initiatives.
He was eloquent and insistent in framing the urgency of the problem: language learning is undervalued in the United States, and a failure to inspire more students to learn languages at higher levels of proficiency–including a textured understanding of the cultures from which the languages emerge–will undermine our ability to respond effectively to the most complex challenges we face in a globally interconnected world.
Happily, Stéphane did not remain at the level of diagnosing the current state of affairs and the root causes that brought us to the situation in which we find ourselves. The second half of his keynote began to point us in a promising direction that deserves serious consideration and intentional, coordinated action.
Stéphane rightly speaks of “Four Axes of Action” that mutually reinforce one another such that progress in one advances progress in others. They are:
Inform – Identify decision makers and stakeholders and tell the compelling story about the transformative power of language learning. Whenever possible, empower students to tell the story themselves.
Advocate – With robust data and compelling qualitative information, assiduously advocate for the importance of language education, integrating it wherever possible into the strategic vision of the University. Stéphane’s focus on engaging advisors is important. We need their help to encourage students to enroll in language programs even and perhaps especially when they have “tested out” of language requirements.
Innovate – Reassess what we are doing in our language programs. We need to provide compelling curricula that provides students with what they most want and need. Here, I would add, that we do ourselves a disservice when fear animates our response to the situation we are facing. Now is the time for bold experiments, new pedagogies, the development of responsive and relevant curricula.
Collaborate – We need to move from competition to collaboration. This requires us to think across boundaries and imagine innovative solutions to common problems. Our collaborations, however, need to be strategically coordinated so that we draw on the divergent strengths of our institutions to enhance the teaching and learning of language and culture. This is the spirit in which this SLCTL Symposium was organized, and the relationships we are establishing and nurturing will be the basis upon which new horizons of collaboration with open for us.
B1G AA Course Share
During the Symposium, we had a number of important conversations about how we might coordinate more effectively across the Big 10 Academic Alliance Courseshare. Traditionally, the Courseshare has focused on individual courses, but the coordinators of the program, as Danielle Steider emphasized, are starting to strategically work together to ensure courses at higher levels are available when students need them. We need to establish more structural support for this kind of strategic coordination that scaffolds the curriculum to ensure higher levels of proficiency.
To facilitate this, we ought to consider convening a meeting of Coureshare coordinators, engaged faculty, Department Chairs, and Administrators to identify ways to more intentionally organize the sharing of courses into the sharing of curricula. Some of the lessons we are learning here with LCTLs will be applicable to other programs that might benefit from the sharing we are learning more effectively to do.
Integrated Strategy with the Research Endeavor
As Federal funding for Title VI grants diminishes, I have been thinking more about how to create new opportunities for more sustainable support for LCTLs in particular, and language and culture education more generally. One approach we might take is to more effectively engage faculty and programs doing research in various regions in which a textured understanding of language and culture would enhance and elevate the research they are undertaking.
At MSU, there are many faculty engaged in research across the globe whose work would be enhanced by a strategic and articulated approach to the languages and cultures of the regions in which they work. The key here will be for us to facilitate collaboration as the research questions are being formulated so that the language and culture dimension of the research can be integrated into the heart of the work from the beginning.
As I board the plane from Chicago, I am heartened by the creativity and commitment of colleagues who have dedicated their careers to enabling students to deeply engage new cultures through the languages that bring them to life.