ITHACA, N.Y. — Danilo Moreta, a Cornell University graduate student studying corn breeding, stood wearing jeans and a black button-down shirt as undergraduate students entered room 336 in the Plant Science Building for a Tuesday night section of PLSCI 4300, Applications in Molecular Diagnostics.
“Hola. Cómo estás? Bien?” he offered to students taking seats. Moreta teaches the science section in Spanish.
Partly, that’s because students in January will do field work in Chilean vineyards, gathering leaf samples to test for viruses. They will need to query lab workers about such things as where to find a micropipette — “Me puedes ayudar a encontrar una micropipeta?” — said Moreta, who was raised in Colombia and honed his English in school and through rock lyrics (Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, the Doors).
But the Spanish section also reflects a move at Cornell and more than two dozen other campuses to combat the notion that language learning belongs only in language classes.
Why not discuss Southeast Asian politics in Indonesian? Opera in Italian? Shouldn’t Cornell Law students in clinics for Hispanic death-row inmates talk about the law in Spanish? At Duke, why not probe the racial, power and political dynamics of soccer in French, Italian or Portuguese?
The move to add language-specific sections to English-instructed courses allows students to keep up their skills in a second language without enrolling in a full-credit, time-consuming course. The sections can also help students acquire basic second-language vocabulary useful in their primary academic fields.
While not a new idea, second-language sections are “seeing a resurgence of interest,” said Deborah Reisinger, director of Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum at Duke, which offers eight to 10 such courses a year (including Soccer Politics), in languages ranging from Arabic to Hindi, Portuguese to Swahili.
Traditional language learning in the U.S. is in trouble. Is this approach an answer?
“Most kids don’t want to become a linguist or get a Ph.D. in the language, but they do want to speak,” said Dr. Reisinger, who this spring will teach a French section of a new course, Global Advertising (there is also a section in Spanish). Languages, she said, are especially able to be adapted “to content in other fields — global health, environmental studies, public policy.”
Americans have a puzzling relationship with second-language learning. The nation is increasingly diverse — in 85 cities, the majority of residents speak a language other than English at home — but just 10 percent of U.S. English speakers are proficient in a second language. And few of them learned it in school.
Yet we want our babies to be bilingual and our grade-schoolers to be surrounded by second languages — and one signal of a quality high school is how many languages it offers (and how exotic). The number of students taking The College Board’s Advanced Placement tests in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese or Spanish rose 68 percent from 2008 to 2018. Yet college language course enrollments are plummeting.
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The Modern Language Association reported a 9.2 percent drop in college language class enrollments and a 5.3 percent decline in course offerings between 2013 and 2016. Enrollments are down 15 percent since 2009 — even though more and more students want global experiences, such as international internships and study abroad programs, and a chance to practice languages they do speak.
People in the language field struggle to grasp the problem, perhaps because they find the case for language study obvious. “I don’t understand the conceptual model for global competence that leaves language out,” said Dianna L. Murphy, director of the Language Institute at the University of Wisconsin.
Baffled by declining enrollments, Murphy plans to survey students this fall about their attitudes toward language learning. Given the current vocational focus, she wants to know “the extent to which students see language learning as linked to future careers.” Several recent surveys show that employers need multilingual workers; a study by New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration policy group, found that the number of job postings seeking bilingual employees doubled from 2010 to 2015.
But on many campuses, learning a second language is treated simply as a box to check. That feeds messaging about how students can test out of the classes or most easily meet requirements. (At the University of Utah, those at a certain proficiency level can purchase the language credits they need for graduation; some colleges have dropped language requirements altogether.) And language courses are often seen as rote, focusing only on grammar and vocabulary memorization, said Reisinger. Yet, she said, “When I teach third-semester French, I talk about immigration issues.”
Another problem, said Howie Berman, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, is that upper-level language classes focus on reading literature, when students “want to fix the world’s problems.” Language learning, said Berman, “needs to be more relevant.”
Language educators lament that courses in STEM are celebrated for teaching real-world skills, but language classes are not. “It is treated as this extra piece that is not a central part of education,” said Amanda Seewald, president-elect of the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies, a legislative advocacy group. Yet, she said, “you cannot be language proficient and not have other skills” as a result.
Research shows links between language learning and other enhancements — more flexible thinking, greater empathy, protection against age-related cognitive decline — although findings are hardly robust.
For many, the case for language learning is simply about being able to interact with people from other cultures. In some academic fields research is going global. Jeremy Thompson, the Cornell professor teaching Applications in Molecular Diagnostics, requires that students take a Spanish section — Moreta’s, or one for beginners. The course can’t solely focus on science, he said, if students are going to work with lab techs and peers in Chile. “You clearly have got to be interacting with the local community.”
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Yet in scheduling terms, students often view language courses as an onerous commitment, said Lisa J. Sansoucy, coordinator of language learning initiatives at Cornell. “Students say it is a lot of credit. It is a lot of time. It is every day.”
That is one reason Sansoucy has worked to increase the number of language sections in mostly English-taught courses (they have offered 62 since the program started in 2016, mostly taught by multilingual graduate students). She said students like that they meet just once a week. “We are now getting repeater students,” she said, with some cherry-picking courses specifically to get into sections in a favored second language.
Abigail Reing, a sophomore at Cornell majoring in food science, took Thompson’s course because of the Spanish component (she’d studied it in high school).
“I really wanted a conversational experience,” she said, lingering after Moreta’s section during a taxing midterm stretch that had left her skimping on sleep. Because her major has so many requirements, “my schedule is pretty packed through the four years,” she said. “I can’t take a five-credit Spanish class that meets every day.”
That is also true for Maya Wilson. A senior majoring in biology with plans for a career in medical research, Wilson said Moreta’s section “gives me a chance to revisit my Spanish,” which she studied in high school. Wilson wants to learn science-specific vocabulary and have Spanish skills “to communicate across barriers.” At the end of class, Moreta foreshadowed the next week’s conversation, writing “ADN” on the blackboard – the Spanish abbreviation for DNA.
Americans, said Wilson, need a fresh attitude toward language learning. “There is a stubbornness. We just want to speak English and have other people adapt to us,” she said. “But the demographics are changing.”
Altering that national mindset can start on campus, but it takes serious effort, said Stephen Angle, director of the Fries Center for Global Studies at Wesleyan, which does not have a language requirement for all majors.
In the fall of 2015, Angle grew alarmed when he saw language enrollments had dropped 11 percent from the previous year. The drop coincided with a policy that let students pick courses online over the summer. Suddenly, students were not meeting with advisers who might have suggested they study a language. And administrative messages “said nothing about languages,” Angle said.
“Nobody was against languages. But nobody was paying attention to the importance of languages.”
Angle and his colleagues responded with a language campaign, including what he called “relentless interface with admissions and the dean’s office.” They combed website FAQ’s. “We looked at all the drop-downs,” he said, and wherever they saw a spot for a video or fact promoting language study, they added one. They created a “language registry” to alert students, staff and faculty whenever an event was scheduled in their target language.
And last spring, they piloted something new: offering second-language sections for three courses taught in English. This fall there are five such language sections at Wesleyan. Angle, who teaches Classical Chinese Philosophy in English, does one in Mandarin.
At the first section meeting in early September, 16 students — heritage speakers and language learners — chattered in Chinese and English as they crowded into a seminar room. Angle toggled between English and the staccato rhythm of Mandarin, noting that in the Analects of Confucius, “there are three different words that we translate as ‘virtue.’ ”
Costel-Tudor Voica, a junior from Moldova majoring in economics, said that being in a class with native speakers was thrilling: “I can take my Chinese to the next level.”
For Xiangyi Guo (she goes by Phyllis), a junior from Bejing who went to high school near London, the section is both a treat (Chinese is her native language) and a challenge. “I haven’t had any academic experience in Chinese,” she said, adding that she started learning English “when I was 5 or 6.”
But Guo, a double major in psychology and the College of East Asian Studies, wanted to tackle Chinese philosophy in Chinese. “Language,” she said, “can make a real difference in how you understand things.”
This story about second languages was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.