Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Languages?

Most bloggers try to show off their knowledge and insight. As regular readers will note, I find it more educational to display my ignorance. One of the many,many things I don't understand is why Universities would teach modern languages? Von Prondzynski brought it up yesterday on his blog, in the context of some departments facing the axe, which people seem to think is a bad thing. I don't get it, but I'm keen to hear a reason.

Some disclosure up front - I studied sciences - Geology - in University, and have not formally studied any language since French in secondary school. My apex achievement in foreign languages was giving an Italian tourist in Venice comprehensible and accurate directions in his own language (at least I think they were comprehensible and accurate, he went off in the right direction). I don't know much about how modern languages departments operate, or what precisely they might do, so feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

There seem to be two reasons expressed to do foreign languages in University. First, to be able to communicate in the language and second, to deepen our understanding of the culture (for the purpose of commerce or the joy of learning). Both these reasons were entirely valid up until, perhaps, the mid 1990's, when Ryanair and the Globalisation wave made a nonsense of them.

Supposing I wanted to learn, for arguments sake, Mandarin. Suppose I was prepared to invest an amount of time and money equivalent to a minor on a 3 year degree - say a year of my life, plus fees, and so on. I'd buy a plane ticket to China. While waiting for flights and visas, I'd might slog through a Linguaphone or Rosetta Stone pack, but I know I'll learn it a lot faster 'In Country'. Arrive, and go total immersion. I'm sure there's any number of schools in China that could provide support for that there there, and help to connect me to people for conversational classes. If I could legally work, I'd find someone that needed my English so I could get into a professional environment and have to speak the native language each day. It would be tough, but after a year of it, I'd reckon I'd a be well ahead of my alter ego studying in a language lab back home.

Will that help me grasp the culture? I might not be up to much on the literary theory, but I reckon by the years end I'll have a pretty good concept of how the place works. Again, a long mile ahead of the peer in the language lab back home, and much more useful know how on how to do business, live and thrive, in the place.

From a commercial perspective, as an employer needing someone with a language or country skills, someone who had lived and, ideally worked in that country for a time would seem a much better bet than someone who had simply studied it from afar. Indeed, for most cases, an local employer who needed staff with a grasp of, say, China, would be better off hiring people from China with some English, rather than the other way around.

In fairness to the modern University, the Erasmus programmes (in Europe) provide something of a framework for the kind of model I'm talking about, and I can't imagine that modern languages departments turn out graduates without them spending a substantial proportion of their degree time in country. But beyond providing enough basic language skills to students before pushing them off the deep end to total immersion, and perhaps organising an effective total immersion experience (work placements and so on) what role do modern languages departments have in Universities in the 21st century? How does it work?

Up until globalisation began to bite, they made perfect sense. When a year in Germany, or China or wherever was much more expensive than a year in your local University, then studying locally makes economic sense, even if it isn't as good. Now that just isn't the case, especially if you cost it out by language contact hours.

Note I'm not criticising the value of learning a foreign language and culture, for business or pleasure, I'm just puzzling over the role modern languages departments have to play in that, moving forward. Nor am I criticising the Classical Language and Culture Departments. I'm told Cicero is beautiful in Latin, and there there is much Arabic and pre Modern Chinese material that remains unstudied and untranslated. With no travel option there, a University Department is a good a forum for them as any.

So what am I missing? Noting the gaps in my knowledge on the topic, I have a very open mind on the matter, but I have a strong suspicion that this is an Emperors New Clothes scenario, where these departments exist because they have always existed, and defending the status quo is almost the defining action of modern Universities. What do modern language departments do that is really future proof? If my daughter, in 2022, says she want to do a University degree in Hindi, what should I tell her?

[Postscript - There is, I think, useful elaboration in the comments. If you have read this and are now angry, do please read on. If you have read this and are not angry, you really must read on to catch the counterarguments.]


  1. Is there some kind of word limit for comments? I've tried and failed at posting a longish (300-word) response several times. But this one seems to work.

    Or maybe it's the accented characters I used.

  2. "As regular readers will note, I find it more educational to display my ignorance."

    Oh, we've noted it alright. Thing is, most ignorant people refrain from pontificating on subjects about which they know nothing.

    A case in point: you clearly haven't the foggiest notion what it is that people in what you, wrongly, call "language" departments actually do. Here's a hint: they're part of the liberal arts.

  3. Not getting it? OK, what do they do in the English Department? Do they teach English? No, they don't: they teach about literature and other cultural artefacts written in English. Well, guess what? That's what they do in the Italian Department, too. Only, in order to make that possible, they also teach the Italian language. Do you get it now? These departments, as part of the liberal arts core, teach about some of the answers that great writers and thinkers have provided (you know, in that far off land called "the past") to profound questions surrounding what it means to be a human being, questions the answers to which you seem to think you've already answered in one of your bullshit "brainstorming" sessions.

  4. So if similarly benighted bumpkins decide to abolish "language" departments, where will your daughter go if she wants to learn about Montaigne (who?) or Goethe (who?) or Cervantes (who?) or Dante (who?). Oh, I know, none of those people matter anymore because all of the questions that exercised them were answered with the arrival of the iPad or the Interstellar Orgasmotron or whatever other new toy you've discovered this week.

    No, but seriously, do you ever think that maybe you might want to learn even the most basic facts about the things you discuss before you hold forth on them like you know something?

    Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

  5. Note: Ernie Balls is a pseudonym.

    Nevertheless, his points merit answering. I'm going to sit sight a day or two to see if anything else come in and assemble a response to the substance of them. I'll be most pleased to lose the argument if the process is enlightening.

    But Ernie, in terms of tone and context, what exactly would be the point in raising the question if I knew the answer? That moderately well educated and open minded people don't really get how and why language departments operate suggests a fairly alarming problem in the case they make for themselves. This is not without consequence, as recent closure threats show. Someday, an axe will swing your way, and your career will depend on being able to soundly defeat the kinds of arguments people like me make.

  6. Is there a word limit on comments? I'd like to respond but dividing my responses in three gets old fast.

  7. Robert, your post doesn't read like an innocent and agnostic search for answers. First you acknowledge your ignorance and then you proceed to pontificate about the uselessness of Departments about which you do not know the very first thing (i.e., what it is they do). The arrogance is not to be believed.

  8. But it reaches even more Olympian heights when you write this:

    Someday, an axe will swing your way, and your career will depend on being able to soundly defeat the kinds of arguments people like me make.

    So, let me see if I have this straight: a self-appointed "expert" on "third-level" feels under no compunction to know anything whatever about what universities are, what their historical cores are, what it is that people do in these cores, etc. etc. etc. before he blithely goes about his speculation about which areas should be closed or are no longer needed or are outmoded.

  9. He doesn't even feel compelled to inform himself about what people working in those areas typically do. Why should he? He's the expert! He's the tribunal before which those disciplines have to justify themselves! He doesn't have to know anything!

  10. So let me take up the hypothetical: you seem to think that longstanding disciplines have to justify themselves to ignoramuses who know absolutely nothing. Moreover, you apparently see nothing wrong with the idea that such ignoramuses might have been empowered with "axes" with which to end careers and wipe out disciplines. No, what's wrong is that some disciplines haven't sufficiently justified their existence to the ignoramuses (who, again, know nothing and can't be arsed to find out) in the form of the sorts of PowerPoint presentations they can follow.

  11. Do you have an idea of what's objectionable about this picture and its portrayal of who has to offer justifications to whom? Is it not rather possible that perhaps the "expert" who is swinging the axe might have to offer some justification for his position as an "expert"? That he might have to have demonstrated some sort of wisdom and knowledge in order to legitimately be in a position to make such determinations?

  12. Seriously, it would seem to me that someone making determinations about what is out of date and what is not would want to have a synoptic view of what exactly has been historically thought about the university, its aims, its history and the changing nature of its disciplines before he started making demands let alone recommending draconian changes. A certain humility in the face of institutions that are centuries old might be in order. I don't see a lot of that on your blog, your protestations of ignorance notwithstanding.

  13. If you really want debate, please do something about the comment word limit. Not everything can be reduced to the length of a tweet.

  14. Re the comment length issues: It's a standard blogger setup here, I don't see a comment length limiter in the settings, but I'll look further. What I sometimes do if I feel my comment is longish is put it on my own blog and link to it (as per my original comment back on University Diary linking to this). You could try that.

    Re everything else, let's tackle that tommorow.

  15. Ernie,
    I've responded, to most of your comments over on University diary 0 I'll repost here for completeness.

    To be clear, in my post, I make no argument with the value of studying languages. Whether for linguistic competance (so I could translate Ernie’s German remark) or broader cultural appreciation. (As a minor aside, here’s an nice example of where language knowledge helps understand the significance of something which would otherwise be missed I can even grasp why learning the language helps to access the cultural heritage – I have some Pablo Neruda here to hand, even in English it’s worth reading, in Spanish it must be very lovely.

    The question I am asking is whether the linguistic competance and broad cultural appreciate is best gained formally in University Language department, or In Country (semi or informal). It seems to me intuitive, as a layman, that a total immersion, In Country experience would be superior. Regardless of my opinion, it’s a point that can be proved either way. There must be any number of studies using pseudo randomised control groups to compare the language and cultural understanding gained by both approaches which could settle the matter.

    If you put those first two elements aside what you are left with is, as Ernie points out, something like an English Deparment, where the main focus is academic study of the cultural artifacts in the language (cultural – so Goethe as poet yes, but Heisenberg or Kant, probably no) with only a little bit of actual language training (style, the usual undergraduate remedial grammer and so forth). I don’t believe English departments in English speaking countries generally do TEFL, or admit students who don’t already have some level if linguistic comprehension, although perhaps the Arts I cohort may make it seem that way.

    It that’s the model were looking at, then the language departments stand on the same ledge as the English department, and stand on the same rationale. If we accept that the academic study of these cultural artifacts is worthwhile, these departments are equally valid. I could raise the question (and it is only a question, so please remain calm) of whether someone wishing to study the cultural artifacts should do so in country also – if I wanted to really grasp Joyce at a fundamental level, should I not try and study him in Dublin?). If my daughter, as Ernie asks, wishes to study Geothe seriously, would she not be better to do so fully immersed in his language, in Germany?

    Another model that seems to exist is to roll in some other disciplines (historians, geographers and so on) and have a broader ‘[region] studies’ department, where the focus seems to be away from those first two layers of basic linguistic competance and cultural awareness. That seems agreably holistic, and no doubt flies well with trade minded funding bodies. It might make a lot of sense at postgraduate level, for students who already have acquired the basics in the country or region under study.

  16. Now, Ernie in answer to your other remarks. Yes, someday, an axe will swing your way, and your career will depend on being able to soundly defeat the kinds of arguments people like me make. The person making those cuts is likely to be more or less like me, with one key difference. I can shrug my shoulders and walk away. He or she will have a budget to balance, and a mission to cut something to do it. She cannot walk away.

    You may not like this, you may consider them an ill informed, Powerpoint toting bumpkin or whatever, but you'll still have to convince them not to cut your department, as others have been cut. Like it or not, you'll need a rock solid, robust and well practised case to survive. You may even have to use small words and Powerpoint. You will almost certainly have to use your real name.

    So long as you are in receipt of public funds, this is how it is and should be. The public monies which pay your wages are a privilege, not a right. They must be continually fought for, against all the other demands on taxpayer money. If you don't like it, go private.

    And of course my post was a little goading - a little bit of 'c'mon, what do you fellas do' in there, and I'm sorry if that unduly upset you and your colleagues. I expect you've heard worse. My hope was to get a bit of a rise and encourage some champion to leap to the defence, which, in fairness, you did, in your characteristic style.

  17. Although I take issue with many of the points you make in this blog, the statement that really stands out for me is: "Both these reasons [ability to communicate and cultural awareness] were entirely valid up until, perhaps, the mid 1990's, when Ryanair and the Globalisation wave made a nonsense of them."
    How does this follow?
    First of all, the ability to communicate effectively in a foreign language is best developed by having at least a basic level of the target language prior to entering the country. If you're aware of how the language functions, you'll become proficient much more quickly once you're there. Software programmes and CD's simply can't beat a hands-on, face-to-face, interactive classroom experience - where questions can be answered and pronuncation problems rectified - for acquiring language skills.
    Secondly, the advent of globalisation and Ryanair does NOT teach the average student how to avoid potential pitfalls in, for example, business dealings. Applied language courses run by Language departments at 3rd level provide you with the necessary knowledge to be able to conduct business (and other) meetings succesfully. I'm sure a 'learn as you go' approach would not be appreciated by an employer sending someone off to a foreign country to negotiate an important deal!
    And before the argument is made that all business is conducted through English these days anyway: No, it's not. For example, research has shown that up to 60% of Germans don't feel that they are proficient enough in English in oder to be able to communicate effectively, and prefer to conduct business through German.
    I refer you to page 12 of the Business section of Enterprise Ireland's 'The Market' journal:

  18. OK, I was unclear in my meaning here.
    What I mean is, the advent of Ryanair et al meant fairly low cost travel to the country of interest. It made it travelling to the country of interest to study the language in situ economically comparable to studying it at home. I'm not suggesting that cheap travel made language learning obsolete.
    Re the second point, I'm suggesting that if I wanted to learn the business culture, I'd take a fairly low level (intern style) post in country - this gives me exposure to the business culture in reality, rather than in theory, without much risk of you blowing a big deal.
    It seems reasonable to me that some formal structured support could be of benefit - but surely more so when in the country, supporting an immersion learning experience, rather than the other way.
    I wouldn't trot out the canard that 'they all speak English anyway...' but it's worth shooting it down as you do.
    If you have other critiques, do please bring them on. I don't think I'm the only person dimly informed about the virtues of language departments.

  19. Knowing the language and knowing about the culture in theory better prepares you for exposure to both in reality.
    I actually agree that anyone serious about studying the language and culture (and using it later in the workplace) should spend time in the country of the target language. But I don't think this should replace formally studying the language and culture at home first. A combination of the two (studying at home followed a stint abroad) achieves optimum performance, in my opinion.