According to a study conducted in 2007 by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the current system of language education in American institutions of higher education does not sufficiently prepare students for the demands of today's global economy. The MLA proposed more interdisciplinary teaching methods, inclusion of relevant content and increased coherency in curriculum.
In light of recent global issues such as terrorism and economic crises, foreign language study has grown in popularity among students on American college campuses, Hamilton included. In 2001, Hamilton's Chinese department only offered 40 openings in the first term language class. This capacity tripled by 2006, and student interest has followed this increase.
Hamilton's Critical Languages program, which offers less commonly taught languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Hindi and Swahili has also greatly expanded in recent years. Italian and Arabic, previously taught by student instructors, have become traditional courses taught by Fulbright professors as student interest has increased.
For the more popular languages, such as French, Chinese and Spanish, Hamilton offers advanced courses and intensive year-long study abroad programs. While these programs in the more popular languages offer valuable opportunities to gain fluency, other academic institutions across the United States lag in their effectiveness of foreign language instruction.
One commonly cited reason for the lack of sufficient language preparation in the U.S. is the country's relative isolation from non-English speaking countries. According to German and Russian Language and Literature Professor John Bartle, the trouble is that "there are no real opportunities other than Spanish to use foreign languages. America's size and distance from other countries makes it hard unlike in Europe, where you are often a short walk or bike ride away from another country."
The perceived American attitude of superiority over other countries is also often named as a contributing factor, according to Visiting Professor of Critical Languages Mireille Koukjian. "The common attitude here is that [foreign language speakers] could learn English," she says.
During the mid-twentieth century it was not crucial for Americans to learn any language other than English to succeed, but the situation has since changed. The true necessity of foreign language education was made brutally apparent on September 11, 2001, when the frighteningly low number of fluent Arabic speakers became a threat to national security. Even six years after that day, the MLA report states that American foreign language education has not undergone the necessary transformation. Only about nine percent of American adults declare themselves bilingual, while roughly 50 percent of European adults are fluent in two languages.
One major difference between the U.S. and the European countries lies in the emphasis placed upon language courses. In America, schools and universities often treat foreign languages as elective courses; European schools include foreign language courses as an essential part of the core curriculum. Other countries also begin foreign language education early, teaching languages along with early math skills during the elementary years. In China, Yinghan Ding '12 began learning English when he started to formally study Chinese in school. "English is sometimes worth more than Chinese, in fact. That means if you have good English skills you are likely to go to better middle schools, high schools and universities, like the ones in the U.S."
Another major problem in American schools is the lack of well-prepared teachers. According to a 2002 article by David Sigsbee, foreign language professor at University of Memphis, America has much looser requirements for foreign language teachers than other countries, and therefore many individuals become teachers without proper training.
In addition to the emphasis placed on foreign language learning, the curriculum of these classes in primary and secondary educational institutions is often lacking as well. Hamilton attempts to place students in proper levels according to performance on placement exams. Yet according to Visiting Assistant Professor of French John Lytle, even with these exams there is a wide range of skills that must be grouped together. In French 140, Lytle attempts to accommodate all students by assigning different types of activities that benefit a wide range of abilities.
Critics of the status quo in foreign language instruction suggest the use of more interdisciplinary techniques in the classroom. Such methods would help students gain a higher level of interest and a better cultural understanding of the language. Hamilton already adheres to this concept of "language through content": departments often offer culture, literature and film courses taught in various languages.
For students concerned about post-graduate employment opportunities, the value of foreign language proficiency should not be disregarded, says Koukjian. Most international companies require knowledge of more than one language in their employees. Aside from career success, fluency in foreign languages enhances cross-cultural interactions wherever one goes. Wai Yee Poon '11, who studies Chinese and Japanese, appreciates the ability to fit in better when she visits either of these two countries: "when you travel, you get to talk with local people, and they open up to you more. They see you as less of a foreigner if you know their language."