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Most Americans assume the world speaks English. Some colleges persist

If the 21st century is beckoning all citizens to attend a global feast, most Americans clearly intend to arrive speaking English.

While the number of US college students studying abroad has surged in the 1990s, the number of students taking foreign-language classes has remained virtually flat. This phenomenon might be called one of the chief ironies of US higher education today: The more talk there is about "globalization," the less likely it becomes that anyone will be able to discuss the subject in anything other than English.

In part, the decline reflects a growing belief that English is so widely spoken that it's no longer necessary for Americans to wrestle with the difficult conjugation of someone else's irregular verbs. But it may also have its roots in an uncomfortable admission that learning foreign tongues is an area in which most otherwise well-educated Americans have never excelled.

As a result, some schools are nervously backing off a commitment to language training. Yet others are convinced that such study has an important role to play in students' lives. These schools are making it a priority to produce Americans who can wrap their minds around more than a dinner menu in French.

At Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., language study continues to be one of the capstones of its reputation.

"Other [foreign-language] programs have folded," says Michael Katz, Middlebury's dean of languages and international studies. "But we're still here."

At Middlebury, in fact, if anything, foreign-language instruction is receiving even more attention. Five years ago, Middlebury President John McCardell Jr. defined five "curricular peaks" -areas of greatest strength on which the school should focus -and foreign-language study was placed at the top of the list.

The college's attitude toward language study reflects a much more realistic view of the world today, insists Professor Katz. "It is extremely shortsighted to allow language study to be given short shrift in this country."

For one thing, he discounts as a "myth" the notion that all non-English speakers will now be required to learn the language. On the contrary, he says, increased nationalism in some parts of the world has made that less likely. He also points to areas like Eastern Europe, where German has become the unofficial lingua franca rather than English.

In addition, says Katz, rapid economic growth in Asia, ongoing peace efforts in the Middle East, closer US ties to Latin America -and the need to interact with these regions with greater insight and sensitivity -should all serve as incentives to nurture rather than downplay foreign-language study in the US.

Rigor at Middlebury

Middlebury's language program is distinct in part because of the rigor with which language study is approached. Students are taught,in both this country and abroad,in "no English" settings that prepare them to converse like a native speaker.

"We're not interested in our students being able to say a few words or learning basic survival skills and then thinking they speak the language," says Clara Yu, former dean of languages at the school, who is on sabbatical. "We want them to understand the nuances, the intellectual depths, to have the advantages of an insider's look at a culture."

Making language degrees relevant in today's job market has been a major focus for Middlebury faculty. Roman Graf, associate professor of German at the school, says he discourages most of his students from choosing traditional German majors with a narrow focus on literature, unless they intend to become professors. He recommends instead a practical approach that includes absorbing as much contemporary German culture as possible, in addition to making connections to other disciplines.

The concept "has taken about a decade to sink into the brains of college administrators," says Professor Graf, but he insists language study is more effective when studies include sources like contemporary journalism and cinema.

Of the 20 students now majoring in German, Graf predicts five will pursue academic careers, two will go into translating, and the rest will work in fields like finance and consulting.

Giving language study a contemporary feel and a broader connection to other disciplines has allowed the school to continue attracting top students and faculty to the field, says Graf.

He says he hopes to export more of the approach to other campuses. "Morale in language programs at other schools is not high," he laments. "But here, morale is up."

Synergy among programs

Language study at Middlebury is divided into three distinct but overlapping areas: the summer schools, the schools abroad, and the undergraduate programs.

The summer language schools -featuring French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic -offer intensive seven- and nine-week courses on the Vermont campus at levels appropriate for all students. Everyone from absolute beginners up to foreign-language doctoral candidates can participate. Typically about 10 percent of the 1,100 students at the summer program are Middlebury undergraduates. The rest come from all across the US and even abroad.

Total immersion is at the core of the summer schools. All students -even beginners -must take a no-English pledge at the start of the nine-week session, promising to communicate only in the language they are studying.

English language TV, radio, and books are banned. Soccer matches between the different schools at the summer sessions have become legendary, with cheerleaders urging their teams on in grammatically correct Arabic, Russian, and Chinese.

Study abroad is also stressed, and Middlebury maintains language schools in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia. Here students can spend a year or a semester abroad, earning credit for their junior year of college or a master's degree.

The undergraduate programs are much more challenging than a typical year-abroad experience. Students are required to take several of their classes at a foreign university in the native language and to pass the same exams the foreign students take, thus demonstrating near-fluency.

About 60 percent of Middlebury undergraduates spend time at one of the schools abroad before they graduate.

That doesn't mean, of course, that all the undergraduates at the 2,200-student school wander comfortably over the Vermont campus chattering in other languages. The college actually has no language requirement, although only about 20 percent of its students choose not to take at least one foreign-language class during their time at Middlebury.

Junior Adam Schildge says he chose Middlebury because of its reputation as an excellent small college - not because of its strength in foreign-language instruction. However, today he finds himself majoring in German Studies and living in the German House on campus where only German is spoken.

But keeping students like Mr. Schildge interested in fields like German has required a proactive approach, says Graf. "We really encourage a double major," he says. "If we didn't, languages would really be in trouble."

*E-mail: coeymanm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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