(Or saving a world language program generally)

Dr. Roger Anderson
Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University

Last week, Dr. Benjamin Rifkin -professor of Russian at Hofstra University- gave an insightful talk to participants and members of the ACTFL SIG on Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL’s).  His points were particularly astute because of his experience as an avid Russian linguist and instructor, as well as an administrator in higher ed previously.  Find his bio here:

The talk was highly informative for LCTL educators in institutions of higher education, but with recent legislative moves to devalue world language education, Ohio educators of all languages- commonly and less commonly taught- should pay attention, in K-12 and higher education alike.  Moreover, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Modern Language Association reported that 650 world language programs ended in institutions in only three years, between 2013-2016.  These are terrifying numbers. Language programs cannot afford to be low-hanging fruit because low hanging-fruit will get cut.

What follows is a very brief summary of some key points he offered.  Attendees of the ACTFL 2021 Conference will be able to hear Dr. Rifkin speak on these issues and interact with him in a “simulive” session.  He graciously allowed me to summarize some of his points with fellow OFLA members. 

  • Recognize who are program’s stakeholders, from students (and parents) up to the community
    • Seek to understand the culture of stakeholders: what do they want to see from your program?
    • Seek to understand how stakeholders compare your program to other programs (enrollments, costs, good publicity, accomplishments/ awards, alumni support)
    • Maintain strong communication with stakeholders:  send them newsletters, emails blasts, social media, etc.
  • Celebrate your programs’ successes internally and externally!  
    • Why not create an award, then publicize your exceptional language learners/ instructors?
  • Acknowledge that language learning is a slow process:  there are limits to what can be gained in 4 years (so set expectations accordingly)
    • Recognize that development is faster/ slower depending upon the language
  • Teach beyond language
  • Design/re-design majors/minors so that they includes a broader scope than just language classes: incorporate (applied/) linguistics, area studies, other fields in which students can use their acquired world language skills
  • Design/incorporate into classes critical thinking language-learning tasks which require a blending of the target language and learners’ critical inquiry, exploration, etc.
  • Design/incorporate into classes a “culture learning speaking task”, that require of learners their exploration and expertise of cultural knowledge in addition to speaking skills, performed in a public place

Embrace real-world challenges facing various communities

  • Collaborate with other departments/ subjects
  • Higher ed:  limit the number of credits to invite students to double-major
  • University LCTL’s:  frame your program as a new, rare opportunity for students to learn about a new culture/ new language (opportunities that were not available to them in K-12)
  • University LCTL’s:  utilize Fulbright instructors (short-term visiting instructors) in extracurricular roles: language/culture clubs, target language housing, etc.
    • Recognize that establishing strong pedagogies, that go beyond language, that collaborate/ connect beyond the classroom take instructors’ commitment beyond short-term visits/ teaching stints
  • Research Ohio’s trade partners, identifying which countries/ cultures/ languages are most important to Ohio’s economy
    • if possible, go even further:  contact these companies and build connections- let them know your program exists (and needs support, monetary or otherwise)

The Take-Away

Dr. Rifkin’s arborist metaphors seem apt and prescient:  programs with deep roots are the least vulnerable to being chopped down.  Programs that become seen as low-hanging fruit will be vulnerable to budget cuts.  Advocates in Ohio of world language learning, particularly those of less commonly taught languages, should consider exploring one/ a few of these ways to deepen their programs’ roots. 

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