CLS Panel Discussion Re MLA Language Recommendations (Arthur Mitchell)

Report on CLS Panel Discussion Re the MLA Language Recommendations

By Arthur Mitchell

On November 14, 2008, the CLS hosted a lively panel discussing the 2007 MLA Report’s recommendations for the future of language study in post-9/11 America. As outlined by Professor Haun Saussy, the report warns against the overly instrumental approach to language taken by U.S. institutions of national defense, and advocates a constitutive approach, where language is seen as a site for the study of foreign cultures and societies. The report replaces the elusive goal of native fluency with “translingual and transcultural competence.” Within this shift, while students are still trained to be “informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers,” the emphasis of this training seems to be not so much on engagement with a foreign community, but rather self-reflection and understanding of cultural viewpoints. Students are “trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture” and are prodded to “consider alternate ways of seeing, feeling, and understanding things.”

However well-intentioned these goals may be, to what extent do they tend merely to affirm American identity vis-à-vis other cultures and reinforce the cultural divides that foreign language learning is meant to help remove? The method recommended by the MLA report “systematically teaches differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview as expressed in American English and in the target language.” But raising cultural differences within the reductive framework of “in our language this” and “in their language that” threatens to radicalize the gulf under the very pretense of trying to bridge it. The report explains that students gaining translingual and transcultural competence “learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans—that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others.” While it is problematic if many Americans believe that everyone in the world is just like them, it is assuredly counterproductive to inculcate in young people a distinct sense of being American and thus very different from the rest of the world.

The problem lies in treating language as an object of study in itself and de-emphasizing the instrumental component of language, the essential notion that language is ultimately a tool for communication with other speakers of that language. The true effectiveness of language study in cultivating cultural understanding and self-awareness seems to me to be rooted in that thrilling and yet potentially traumatic experience (at least for many Americans) of actually entering into and engaging a community of foreign language speakers. This experience consists, on the one hand, of the struggle of having to use an alternate and unfamiliar system for producing and comprehending meaning and, on the other, the subtle transformations of the self that necessarily occur through the assimilation of this alternate system. To the extent that language education ignores the experience of speaking the foreign language within the foreign society, to the extent that it discounts the transformational impact of engaging a foreign community within its own language – i.e. the way that language is constitutive through its instrumentality – it forfeits the most important cultural lessons that language learning has to offer.

But the opposition between instrumental and constitutive approaches to language is a tension that exists within the actual MLA Report, which itself goes a long way towards emphasizing the critical importance of cultural knowledge for the purposes of comprehension and communication in a foreign language. Much of the report in fact is devoted to elaborating the types of cultural knowledge that is necessary for effective communication and engagement. Professor Heidi Byrnes argued in her remarks during the panel that one of the main purposes of the language classroom was to instill in students a sense of what is appropriate and correct language use. The cultivation of this sense, which requires cultural knowledge, is indispensable for effective communication within a foreign community. Professor Byrnes also made the valuable point that language education must take place within a classroom, and not on the streets and homes of a foreign country. The education that does go on within a classroom, however, should ultimately lead not towards more classrooms but towards the challenges and possibilities of a foreign experience.

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