Language Education Reforms Spark Debate

April 17, 2008

Ever since 9/11, the American public has been keenly aware of a language crisis that leaves Americans dangerously out of touch with events and opinions in other parts of the world. Last year, a committee of the Modern Language Association released a report examining how foreign language educators can address that crisis at the university level. Members of the committee included Michael Geisler, Middlebury's vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Graduate Programs, and Karin Ryding, a 1964 graduate of Middlebury College who is now a professor of Arabic and linguistics at Georgetown University.

The committee's report, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World," has become one of the most widely discussed documents in recent MLA history. It calls for sweeping reforms in the way foreign language education is structured in the United States. Among its key recommendations: colleges and universities need to provide advanced language students with a strong background in culture and area studies, rather than concentrating exclusively on literary history.

"Deep cultural knowledge and linguistic competence are equally necessary if one wishes to understand people and their communities," Geisler says. "The committee recommends moving towards a goal of both linguistic and transcultural competence. Students need enough proficiency in the language to converse with educated native speakers, combined with a deep analytic knowledge and understanding of history, societal values, norms and traditions."

The full report is available on the MLA Web site at: