October 04, 2004

Language scholarship and language teaching

Lee Smith has an interesting article in Slate today, under the headline "The Language Gap: Why Middle Eastern linguists are hard to find, even though the government has been funding the field". One key quote:

One problem is that language instruction is typically not a high priority in academia, where other disciplines enjoy more prestige. "Universities have tended to relegate language pedagogues to the status of lecturers, who don't get the same salary or tenure rights as professors," Amy Newhall, the executive director of the Middle East Studies Association told me. Federal funds evidently haven't done much to change the calculus.

This is certainly often true, but not always. For example, my colleague Roger Allen, professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Penn, has long been a tireless promoter of language teaching, both at Penn and on the national scene. As his web page explains, Roger "is a certified Arabic proficiency tester for the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and in 1986 was asked to serve as ACTFL's national Trainer of Testers. Since then he has led a large number of workshops on language teaching and learning, involving materials preparation, classroom instruction, and testing. Along with Adel Allouche he has completed a proficiency-based textbook for standard Arabic using computer-assisted instructional methods, Let's Learn Arabic [1988]." Roger teaches Arabic courses at all levels himself, as I first learned in 1990 when he asked me for help in getting instructional tapes digitized.

I'll confess, though, that it's rare these days to find people in positions like Roger's -- he's a full professor with tenure and a strong reputation as a literary scholar -- who are also committed to language teaching. This is just as true among linguists, alas, as it is among literary types. Though it's hard to separate cause and effect, this dereliction of duty is probably not unconnected to the strength, in some language-teaching circles, of attitudes similar to those of the Whole Language movement in reading instruction. I'm talking about the general idea that adult language learning should work just like child language learning does, i.e. without any component of explicit analysis. Milder forms of this disease merely forbid giving students any explicit analytic guidance, whereas stronger forms try to prevent teachers from focusing on imparting particular constructions or morphological devices, or even targeting particular vocabulary. The argument here is that children learn their first language without any conscious analysis and without any particular planning on the part of those they learn from, so ...


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 4, 2004 10:39 AM