Hope for Language Learning in Times of Technological Innovation and Budgetary Crises

By Kevin Anzzolin, Assistant Professor of Spanish, University of Wisconsin-Stout

 

 

Part tent revival, part self-help group, part professional networking event, on October 6 and 7, over 200 academics from a bevy of different higher education institutions descended onto the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan for what they anticipated to be nothing short of a transformative event. The two-day conference, entitled “From Crisis Management to Innovation: Reimagining the Role of World Languages in the 21st Century,” promised to enlighten university-level language instructors as to how to keep their classroom enrollment numbers up and their programs vital in times of technological innovation and crippling budget cuts. Although the majority of participants taught Spanish, also in attendance were those dedicated to French, German, and even Latin instruction. The first conference of this sort—which convened under the same name—was held at Iowa’s Simpson College in October 2015.

This year, as jet-lagged attendees hustled to pour themselves a cup of coffee and find a seat before the 9 am start time, many leafed through the conference program. The “Welcome note” on the program’s first page indicated that conference speakers had every intention of acknowledging the dire straits that language instructors face—it read more like a warning notice: “If headlines are any indication, world language programs are often the first to be eliminated when cuts must be made.”   

This year’s conference felt particularly timely. Roughly 48 hours before Hope College’s Dr. Lee Forester offered the conference’s opening remarks, news had broken about a possibly game-changing innovation from Google: Pixel Buds, a tech-savvy earpiece that offers wearers the possibility of almost simultaneously translating to and from over 40 languages. Beyond merely referencing the device, Dr. Forester, chair of the conference’s organizing committee, quickly pulled up an Internet story detailing Google’s miraculous incursion into polyglotism. If anyone in the audience still wondered as to the conference’s somber raison d’être, Google’s newest gadget quickly vanquished any confusion: language instructors need to change with the times or be rendered obsolete.  

During the two-day conference, attendees heard from numerous speakers from diverse colleges and universities; each testified to having revived the language programs at their respective institutions via different means. The topics presented on were elaborated with the explicit purpose of providing participants with a diverse toolkit with which to energize stagnant programs: how to successfully speak to administrators, how to redesign curricula so as to better attract undergraduates, and how to forge connections with colleagues from across disciplines. The keynote address on Friday afternoon was offered by Michigan State University’s Dr. Bill VanPatten, a heavyweight in the field of second language acquisition. Beyond his prodigious amount of scholarship on SLA, VanPatten authored Destinos in 1992, a Spanish textbook that is still widely taught in the United States at both the high school and the university level. His talk, entitled “What Does It Mean to Innovate in Language Instruction?,” can be found here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeZVfwWDHg8)

Here are a number of salient takeaways from this year’s conference:

  • Various speakers—including the keynote speaker—encouraged the audience to lookbeyond textbooks so as to craft a pedagogy that better responds to students’ interests and needs as language learners.
  • VanPatten pithily explained the disconnect between textbook ‘learning’ and the real ability to function at a high-level in the L2 by stating, “What is on page 32 is not in my head.” That is, the grammatical structures, lexical forms, and target vocabulary—all presented via discrete, seemingly well-organized units within a L2 textbook—are likely not representative of how one really learns. Other speakers more cynically cajoled attendees to free themselves from the financial and pedagogical fetters that coincide with textbook adoption, and referred to publishers as part of an ‘educational industrial complex.’
  • Many presenters urged conference participants to redesign classroom tasks so that instruction can keep pace with technological changes. This type of pedagogy can take many forms, but generally tasks instructors and students to look beyond seeing language itself as a subject matter. Rather, language courses should provide intercultural communication competence, professional expertise, or even skills related to the STEM fields—even while instruction is imparted in the L2. If recent history is at all indicative of the near future, tomorrow’s students will have immense access to translation technology. But will they wield enough interpersonal competence, critical-thinking skills, and digital literacy (in the L2!) to achieve professional excellence with those devices at hand?
  • Also related to the above point (and mentioned throughout the conference) is the notion that language instruction needs to be more profoundly structured around (other) specific content areas, whether those other fields are business, sociology, or even video game design. Many speakers argued that by embracing this type of interdisciplinary pedagogy, instructors could underscore the far-reaching applications of language acquisition and furthermore, better align their courses with the over-arching mission of one’s home institution. In this same vein, VanPatten suggested that the communicative revolution in language instruction had never reached the upper-level language courses in the United States, where focus remains on teaching classics of Spanish literature. Would we not, in fact, better serve our students if their instruction more closely matched their professional goals? After all, the truth is that very few our students will go on to eventually publish scholarly articles on Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, or Isabel Allende. Why not focus instead on improving their personal and professional lives?

An autumn shower blew into Hope College’s campus during the keynote address and continued through the evening. Some attendees, having arrived from dry locales, had forgotten to pack umbrellas, and thus got caught out in the rain. The following day, toward the end of the conference, as everyone packed away their notebooks and made reservations for airport shuttles, the sun again peaked out through the clouds. It seemed an appropriate end for a conference in which participants had challenged themselves, in a real way, to weather a storm.

 

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