The Future of Language Learning

A Conversation with Per Urlaub, Middlebury’s New Associate Dean for Curriculum 

The Language Schools have a new associate dean for curriculum. To fill the recently created position, a search committee led by Dean Steve Snyder chose Per Urlaub, who comes to Middlebury from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was an associate professor in the Department of Germanic Studies. He also served as that department’s language-program director and director of assessment. He holds a PhD in German from Stanford University and has taught German studies, applied linguistics, and European studies in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.

“Per’s experience managing a large department of five languages and his research on second-language acquisition make him a great choice for this job,” Dean Snyder says. “He will have the time and budget to work with directors to pursue ideas for research, innovation, and professional development that they don’t have time to take on themselves.

“The needs and interests of language learners today have changed from our historical model of teaching teachers, and our curricula are evolving to meet the demands of the language learners of the future,” Snyder says. “As part of Middlebury’s strategic-planning process, the Language Schools are taking stock of what we are doing well and where we have opportunities to innovate and lead in the field of second-language acquisition. Per will play a key role in helping us to do that.”

The following questions and answers provide an introduction to the new associate dean.

Q: How did you first hear about Middlebury’s language programs?

A:  I was “fresh off the boat” as a graduate student at Stanford when I first heard about Middlebury from fellow students who had studied there during the summer. I was amazed at their high level of language proficiency, and I was intrigued by the immersion model the Language Schools represented. 

Q: What attracted you to the position?

A: While I have been working at a large university with a broad range of languages, I was interested in working with a broader range of languages, so the opportunity to work across languages from Korean to Hebrew to Russian was really interesting. And, of course, by the time I heard about the actual position, I was well informed about the legacy and lore of Middlebury and the almost cult-like status the Pledge holds for people!

The opportunity to work on curricular innovation at a place like Middlebury was very attractive. The pedagogical innovations of today have to respond to the needs of language users in 2040. What we are doing now must prepare people for linguistic and intercultural challenges and opportunities throughout their careers. Therefore, we need to think about what kinds of people will want to learn what languages in what ways for what purposes. It’s a huge challenge, but an exciting one.

Q: What do you think are the greatest strengths and challenges of the Language Schools?

A: The directors and their faculty are the schools’ greatest strength. They bring such a depth and breadth of knowledge about their language and culture, but also the pedagogical experiences from their own institutions. I am amazed at how many of the faculty members come back each summer. Despite Middlebury’s 24/7 environment, the retention rate is unbelievably high, which speaks to the success of the Schools.

I think one of our challenges will be to respect individual characteristics of each School and its curricula and pedagogical approaches, while creating better paths for sharing successes and innovations across the Schools and all parts of Middlebury. I certainly would be the last person to advocate that we teach French and Korean in the same manner, but we need to be sure that we share ideas and innovations between Schools.

Q: What national trends in foreign-language teaching and learning do you see emerging in the U.S. and abroad? How should those trends inform our decisions for curricular innovation?

A: I see several important trends that we need to keep in mind as we move forward. First, given the legacy of the Middlebury approach, it might seem counterintuitive, but digital instructional technologies will be a part of the future. For us, I don’t see that in any way replacing the model we have, but there are technological opportunities supplementing it. We are already doing that with our pre-enrollment online program in Russian and with our online program in Hebrew during the academic year.

Second, unfortunately, I believe Middlebury must be prepared to compensate for public policy failures around language learning. Many large public research universities have seen significant reductions in funding for the humanities, including languages, and this trend will continue. And yet, as globalization marches on, we also see an ever-increasing need for a multilingual and interculturally competent citizenry. So Middlebury will not just remain a critical resource for teaching and learning languages at the national level, both the profession and the public will turn more frequently to us for ideas, advocacy, and leadership.

Q: How do you see technology impacting translation, as well as interest in learning a foreign language as a means of practical communication?

A: The impact is undeniable: we cannot wish Google Translate away, so it would be naive not to acknowledge its importance. But even with the best technology, and assuming continued progress in the field, meaningful translations of complex texts will continue to result from human-machine collaborations. So, while a machine may be able to independently translate a user manual for a DVD player, it will not be able to produce adequate translations not only of novels and poetry, but also of legal documents, business contracts, or medical instructions. Human intelligence is essential to comprehend and convey the meaning encoded in such complex texts and contexts. But machines will become more important in supporting human translators, and we as professors need to keep an eye on how to best educate students for a world where human intelligences are increasingly scaffolded and augmented by technology.

Q: You moved here from Austin, Texas. That’s a pretty big change. How are you settling in to small town Vermont? Are you ready for your first Vermont winter?

A: I love it, but ask me again in the middle of winter! I grew up in northern Germany, far north of here, so the long, dark winters are familiar, but not the cold and snow, so it’s been a good excuse to do some clothes shopping. My friends also tell me I need a winter hobby, so I am going to give snowshoeing a try, since I am not a skier. It’s also nice to have things to do close to home and work. In Austin, once you left the town itself, there was very little, but here the mountains provide lots of options, and even the big cities like Boston and New York seem pretty accessible. Another initial regret was leaving Austin’s cuisine, which I loved, but at least I have discovered the Mad Taco in Waitsfield!

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