Monday, October 4, 2010

Justifying language study's raison d'être

Today has been a great day... I've navigated the aisles of the Coop grocery store in French, listened to the news on TF1, attended a trauma theory class in English, and worked on my Arabic homework via the intermediary of French.  To say nothing of discovering how to say "lint," since I failed to remove it from the lint trap and got it all over my clothes as I was removing them from the dryer (I'll need to know how to explain myself as I hit the streets covered in "des peluches").

All was going well, and then I received an email about the deactivation of the French, Italian and Russian programs at SUNY-Albany.

Needless to say, this is mildly depressing news as I embark on my second to last year of my French Ph.D. program.  Seven fewer tenure-track positions to fill; seven experienced, accomplished professors back on the market.  If a huge university system like SUNY can disband its foreign language programs (except for Spanish), then any university can.  My reaction?  Anger.  Disbelief.  Disappointment.  For such a forward-thinking nation, our university education system--especially if it gets rid of foreign language programs--is slowly losing its mettle on the world stage.  I'm currently studying in Geneva, Switzerland where everyone is raised speaking at least two, if not three languages, or more!  Of the foreign students I've met from Austria, Canada, Finland, France, the Czech Republic... all of them speak more than one language, and they do it WELL.  They haven't taken a language for only three years and are now purporting to be fluent... they actually are.  Denying future American students the opportunity to do the same will only put them at a disadvantage on the world market.  We're already behind linguistically as it is, and decisions like this will only make the situation worse, fueling the attitude that English is more than enough, especially if it is US running the proverbial show (double entendre intended--did you catch it?  See?  Language play!).   

What has language study given me?  Another perspective on how to perceive the world (make that three!).  An openness to other ways of thinking.  An appreciation for words and meaning.  A capacity to communicate and express myself through more than one media.  The ability to put people at ease when they do not speak English as well as their own native tongue.  An introduction to literature in the language it was composed in (what, you mean The Count of Monte Cristo wasn't written in English?).  Jobs that I am passionate about--both teaching and translation.  In short, language study has dramatically shaped who I am--for the better.  Moving in the direction of professional degrees only simply isn't productive!  And this is not to say that I want to continue in the way of the old guard, writing articles that will be relegated to a dusty shelf and producing graduate student progeny that will struggle to make ends meet as adjuncts.  I want to become like some of my most admired professors and colleagues who are doing applied humanities work, putting language to functional use in society, and inspiring students on a daily basis.  There is definitely room for improvement and innovation in the humanities today, but deactivation will not allow us to do either.

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