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Archive for the ‘Foreign Language Learning’ Category

We continue our blog series documenting the reflections of the inaugural cohort of the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP) today with a post from Ashley Sinclair, who runs a one-person study abroad office at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Ashley took the phrase “don’t recreate the wheel” to heart as she dedicated herself to building on and innovatively expanding resources already available to her in order to better prepare her students to study abroad.


By Ashley Sinclair
As a one-person study abroad office, life can easily get overwhelming. I want to provide my students with the best services, programs, orientations, and more, but time and resources are not always on my side. While I love my job, in large part because I love meeting the challenges that this kind of office can bring, I have to admit that sometimes I feel a twinge of envy at conferences when I speak with colleagues from other larger universities who have more staff and more time to prepare individual orientations for specific countries or majors. What can I do to better prepare our students to go abroad with no extra staff or resources? This question was the driving force behind my year in the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP).

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I wanted to join the conversation about Larry Summers’s remarkable statement in a recent New York Times opinion piece about why we don’t need to learn foreign languages anymore.

Mr. Summers advances two reasons why, 25 years from now, we won’t need to know how to speak other people’s languages. First, we will all have an app for that. Well, maybe. I read in the New York Times a few days ago that they have an app now for flirting in bars, so I guess anything is possible. May he and I both live long enough to know.

But as I am a bit skeptical of that one, I focus more on the other reason:  the not-exactly-original notion that English is now the universal language, so why make the effort to learn other people’s languages? Here’s why.

The idea that we will not need to know other languages in 25 years because everyone will speak English has in fact already been around for about that long. It has not served us well.

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By David Dinneen
I have been retired for over ten years, and I must admit that I have taken full advantage of not being on the front lines writing and speaking in defense of foreign language learning. When I feel moved to speak up on the subject, I do so from the admittedly comfortable position of not having to concern myself with preserving my livelihood. What does need preserving, however, is something absolutely critical to all of us: the ability of our citizens to understand the world, and to be effective, in the cross-cultural and global contexts where daily life increasingly plays out. To this end, foreign language learning is absolutely critical.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Lawrence Summers wrote that the advent of sophisticated translation technology may very well soon make the study of foreign languages an unnecessary activity in U.S. higher education. As a professor of French and of Linguistics, who earned his doctorate in Linguistics at Harvard while a member of the Machine Translation project at M.I.T., I must strongly disagree.

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Matt SugrueBy Matt Sugrue
With great confidence, I strode purposefully to the counter of the patisserie and said, “Ithnaan al-qahwa min fa…” The young man working behind the counter raised his hands in front of him in a gesture that was both pleading and placating and, with very little trace of accent, said, “Please. Please stop. I speak English.”

Welcome to the first morning of my first day in Lebanon in the summer of 2009. Suddenly I was facing the prospect of having to travel around Lebanon equipped with Arabic skills that were not nearly as good as I had thought.

By the end of my month-long backpacking trip, which also included time in Syria, my spoken Arabic vastly improved from my fateful coffee-ordering experience – in fact, it  improved more in the short time I was in the two countries then it had over the entire 2 ½-year period that I had taken academic language classes.

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One of our country’s periodic “great debates” is in full swing. This one constitutes an early round in the national conversation that we need to have about how to address the budget deficit, which has mushroomed out of control over the past decade, a product of earlier policies compounded by a historic recession. The first serious round consisted of the creation, deliberations, and report of the President’s Deficit Commission. Now the 2010 election and, in particular, the assumption of control of the House of Representatives by a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party, is forcing the issue onto the policy agenda. Virtually by definition, great debates affect the course of the nation, and this one promises to be no exception. Uncomfortable as it is, this debate can no longer be avoided.

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The frequent drumbeat of “no-new-spending” and “pay-down-the-debt” in Washington can be puzzling for people who know instinctively that even when times are tough, you have to keep investing in the things that matter. While there is much energy being spent on asking how we can spend less, perhaps a better question to ask is: How do we spend smarter? David Brooks, writing recently in the New York Times, suggests looking at the success of government not in terms of how big or small it is, but in what it helps America to achieve. “Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?” he asks.

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An article published yesterday by the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the recent trend of increases in U.S. students studying Arabic and other languages deemed by the federal government to be “critical foreign languages.” The Chronicle reports that resources provided by the federal government to colleges and universities in the past decade have strengthened programs in Arabic and other languages critical to the national security and economy of the United States.

According to the article, “[t]hat effort has increased the number of undergraduates whose first major was Arabic from 13 in 2002-3 to 57 in 2007-8″ (according to the Digest of Education Statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education). The Modern Language Association also reports that “the number of students taking Arabic courses nearly doubled, to 24,000, between 2002 and 2006.” This trend is also reported in other critical languages. For example, “undergraduate degrees in Chinese rose from 190 to 289 between 2002-3 and 2007-8, and in Korean from five to 15.”

However, there is some concern that this uptick in students learning critical languages does not equate to the number of students with the cultural competencies necessary to be proficient in those languages. Roger Allen, chair of the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department at the University of Pennsylvania, said in the article that “he is concerned that students will focus on learning languages while neglecting vital cultural context” and that “study-abroad programs could help alleviate that problem.”

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Recently, the Miami Herald ran an article titled, “It’s time for Americans to master a second language.”

Vic Johnson, Senior Advisor, Public Policy, replied with the following:

Learn other languages

Andres Oppenheimer, in his July 17 column, is absolutely correct: It’s time for Americans to master a second language. Barack Obama should be congratulated for having the courage to say so.

We live in a dangerous world, one that we fail to understand at our peril. International competence helps our economic competitiveness. But there are limits to our ability to understand other peoples and cultures if we cannot speak their languages. It is a misguided patriotism that celebrates ignorant monolingualism in the global age.

The next president should set a national objective that every student will graduate from college with proficiency in a foreign language and a basic understanding of at least one world region.

We’d like to know what you think. Do you think it is important for Americans to learn a second language? Why or why not?

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