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Raw Transcript: Elizabeth Bernhardt on the Future of Language Learning

This is the raw transcript of a workshop led by Elizabeth Bernhardt on April 25 2017.

Alexander Key: It is a tremendous pleasure to welcome Professor Elizabeth Bernhardt for this session of the Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew focal group. Professor Bernhardt needs no introduction. Still, I will say that she is the John Roberts Hale Director of the Language Center and Professor of German Studies at Stanford University. Professor Bernhardt has a long and storied career. In 2014, the Modern Language Association recognized her leadership in scholarship by granting her a Distinguished Service to the Profession award. For those of us who may not have been to the previous sessions, PATH, this focal group, is a new DLCL conversation in which interested parties, including me and you, get together and talk about Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Turkish, what we are doing with them, and how they fit in with the DLCL more broadly. When we were deciding whom to invite, Elizabeth was the first name on the list for obvious reasons, many of which will become more clear today.

Elizabeth Bernhardt: Thank you. Wow, it's amazing what you hear in these introductions, what you learn about. Thank you very much for inviting me. I feel a little bit embarrassed, because I am not a specialist in any of the PATH, what I am now calling PATH languages, which sounds kind of weird but that’s what I am calling them in my head. I have an appreciation for them, surely as much as I can. When Alexander first invited me he said how about talking about the future of language teaching and I thought about it and said, "No, I want to talk about the future of language learning." I think the teaching part we kind of have under control, it’s the learning part that’s causing me quite a bit of anxiety at the moment. I do hope that I can feed you all with anxiety so you can go out and think about this. So what I am going to try to do is unpack some of that anxiety that I have, both in terms of what the curriculum does to students, and what it does for students. I have divided my comments into three parts. The first one is "What does language learning mean for students?", and I am going to try to bring some research evidence which is mostly surveys and self-report. Then I want to underline how their interests are by and large compatible with what we know about language learning. That will bring me to the second focus of my talk and that’s where I will say something about what we actually want for students in terms of language learning. So I assume we all want them to use language for their future learning. It’s not good enough to just "do something with the language," it has to be linked to the future. And then I will move to part three, which is my concerns and anxieties, so stay tuned for that.

So Part 1—Students: what do they want? There is a survey by Richard Light from Harvard University called "Making the Most of College." In that survey, students specifically recorded how much they liked their language classes. They rated their math or physics classes negatively. But they were very positive about language classes. They reported that, first and foremost, they love their language classes because the objectives were clear. They told the interviewers that they like objectives, they like teachers who teach to objectives, and that foreign language teachers are very good about making the objectives clear and then working with students to explicitely help them meet that objective. Students were very clear, they don't like the "guess-what-I-am-thinking" kind of instruction, they like to know what they are doing and where they are going, and they like to have a person guiding them. And you see that, here at Stanford, at the Language Center, there is an almost obsessive preoccupation with the nature of the objectives that we have, and how they have been codified, and how to work with people to be able to meet those objectives.You all know I am talking about here. In North America we use the language of proficiency, in Europe it is the Common European Framework. We are not out of the global sequence here, we are in it, and everyone in the developed world is kind of on the same scale about language learning and students in those programs are also on the same scale, they want to know where they are on the learning spectrum.

Second thing that the students tell us is that they want to know about the culture. Some surveys are on French, some on Spanish, but generally students report that they are in language classes because they want to "better understand how various groups interact and operate on the world" Literature learning? The answer is: yes. But literature learning is seen as revealing something about people. So, in other words, if I read this book in French, I am going to know more about french-speaking people and they like that. So, the undergraduate mentality is a pretty straightforward utilitarian perspective on why they are there and what they want about the culture stuff. They see language learning as personal and real and immediate in their world. Something to act on and do.

Now let me show you some national data. Here's a survey that reflects much of what I just said form those other surveys. This survey was conducted among around 500 learners of Arabic, and it comes out of the National Middle-East Language Resource Center. These data are about 10 years old but they were culled after 9/11, asking why students study Arabic. If you look at the graph, the big winners are: to understand arab culture, to read modern arabic press, to understand radio and tv, to travel to the Arab world, and to interact with people who speak arabic.


You see, these 500 kids are absolutely oriented towards cultural stuff. Let me show you what we have from the Stanford data. I should stop here [00:10:23] . Let me show you the next one which is our internal data. These data come from teaching evaluation forms. What I did was that I collapsed five years of PATH and I smushed everything together. And you see there, first year second year it’s kind of the same, you have this GER stuff. PATH languages are not requirement languages and nobody would be crazy enough to do that because of their difficulty level. And they are not big in majors either. But 2/3rd of the students who want to be there, they are there for an interest level, these are generally students who have already completed another language, and then they move to one of the PATH languages.

I see these data as basically consistent with the other survey. Students have told us over the years, I have been seeing, this graph would be the same if we put African languages here. Students in these kind of languages are always interested in more than just needing to be there. This is the Stanford situation, I get to rather than I have to. What this tells us is that they like to talk. This is something that I have been surveying, I asked students so what's the scoop on reading, how do you feel about that. Here's the general answer, they do not mind reading if they get to talk about what they are reading. This is also true for graduate students when I asked them. They do not like reading stuff that they are not going to get to talk about. In fact they say that the minute the instructor signals that they do not get to talk about what they have been asked to read, they don't read it. They say, why bother. So they report, they might not like being asked to read something and have someone else come in, teacher professor, who will hold the floor talking about whatever they have been asked to read. In fact I was told yesterday absolutely no reason to read any of this stuff when that guy is going to keep talking. I will do my own thing, I will write my paper and that’s the stuff I will read. End of story. That's pretty important as I transition into the next part.

Graph of students' reasons for learning Middle Eastern languages

So, just to summarize, students like clear objectives, they wanna know about the culture, and they like to talk.

Now I am going to talk a little bit about research data in second language acquisition as the bridge here. There are volumes and books that can fill this room on second language acquisition. I am going to bring it down to 2 sentences. First thing that’s really important is that language learning is developmental, and that means that the form that one presents, learns, puts on the test, or has students practice in some way, may not actually emerge in real use until weeks and months later. So all of you with lots of language learning experience know that we have to be patient with things that we have been taught. Because that stuff doesn't really come out until later.


Okay, next big headline from second language acquisition is that both input and output are critical. Meaning input is the part where teacher is going on and on in the language. That is necessary but insufficient. If it were sufficient that would mean we could put learners in front of a tv and films, and they would just watch and absorb everything and learn and we would be happily out of business. But we all know it doesn't work that way. What we know from that research evidence is that output is critical, that means students have to try to use the forms and forums, they have to be allowed to say something. Teachers are always nervous about that, but students will not learn until they are allowed to have output. Now, put together what I said as number three. You know that some of our curriculum erodes what students need to be able to do. The minutes the students are silenced, that means, essentially, that their learning stops. So let me show you some scary stuff. Part 3 here, learners have great intuition. They know that they need to talk, they wanna talk, that will help their learning. But let’s look at what actually happens to them. This is actually the data from Spanish. There are a number of studies in Spanish and French that are absolutely consistent. In this particular study Mark Darohar took three separate literature classes, and measured the amount of talk. So student talk and teacher talk. There were fifteen students or so in each one of these classes. So you see from this graph that the teacher is talking the same amount if not more than all of the students combined. That means that there is a huge amount of teacher talk there, very little opportunity for the students to talk. The next one might illustrate this better, same classes, this is language utterances, students, when the teacher takes turn it’s a big barrage of language. That’s good, students need input, when students finally get to take a turn and talk. [00:20:10] So the big message here is we know learners have to talk, they wanna talk, and when they go into upper level courses, they are not getting to talk.

Graph of number of teacher-learner conversation turns

Now I can't show you data from a PATH language. But I would be thunder struck if the data were different from this. In fact I have a suspicion they might be even worse than this. Meaning that intensive kind of blah blah blah to make sure that students do two things, get certain kind of content that the instructor believes the student needs and only hears "accurate language". So there is a fear on the part of the instructor that if learners hear something that is inaccurate they will pick that up. But there is no research evidence to back that up. Its just sort of a phobia.

Graph of mean length of teacher and learner utterances

Anybody want to comment on these before I move on?

[Question about grammar/translation and teaching students how they should be learning]...[00:21:34] I think it might be that they are coming out of a graduate translation background, and I think we also have to do some learner training to let them know how they need to be performing and they might not feel confident. And they tend to be hit with questions that are well beyond what they would be able to respond to anyway. You know the classical literary question, so what did you think? In these studies there are some very clever comments that many of the questions that the teachers pose are actually invitations to the teacher him or herself to answer the questions. You are all laughing, you have been in these courses. Threre is reticence but they might also think "what's the point because this guy doesn't want me to answer their question?" Or there is some opening gambit of a question that is so complex that everyone is going like what. Like would you comment on gender politics for Molière's The Misanthrope? That's just like what we edited. Thanks for saying that.

What I wanna make sure you understand before I get to my next part is that you don't think that I am pandering to students. It's very important that we understand what their expectations are, what their needs are, and what learning is to them. So we really shouldn't be about imposing a learning model. We should get a sense of what they want.

[Speaker] Excuse me, what level are these classes?

[Elizabeth] Oh they are literature classes. So they would be junior, senior classes.

[Alexander] Is there any distinction in the data between the different types of teachers speaking in the classroom? There are discussions and then there are moments when students are asking questions, and then there are performances and so forth.

[Elizabeth] Everything that I have looked, and all of these studies, and I can give you the bibliography, there is none of this pose a question and expect the student to give an extensive answer. Usually, the teacher asks a question, maybe the student says something and then the teacher asks next question. If there is any sort of discussion or any mention of language here, it is about vocabulary. Teacher would provide the correct vocabulary word. In the description in the literature there is no fluidity in terms of words.

Would that be good?

Absolutely, because students would get to talk more.

When students are in groups, they talk more? Students need a little security from the small group, say what they think they need to say before they are on stage in front of the professor and in front of the larger group. That would change this number a lot. But right now it's the initiation question and then some sort of response. Oh good, let me make my next point.

So let me go on to part 2.

So the question about what we want. What we actually want is advancement on the part of the student. We want students to be able to do this, to be able to retell the story and describe things, we want them to use a full tense system, can't tell a story if you can't do past tense, we want them to be able to connect discourse, that one sentence has a sentence after it that’s connected to the first sentence. And we want them to use cohesive devices like first, second, third on the one hand, on the other hand. You know when you look at that description, it sounds like a bare bones kind of description. You all who teach know how difficult it is to learn how to do this stuff. But this is where we want them. But let me show you what we do here.

So this is second year, and you see in Arabic. Most students are intermediate high or advanced low at the end of second year. Intermediate high means students can do most of the tasks at the advanced level. That's a really wonderful level to be at. Means that you can actually do something with the language. I should note that all of our data are at least a year ahead of any other institution, so we are very proud of this data. And we also measure their writing proficiency, so you see that they are either at a high intermediate or low advanced stage. Here are the Hebrew data, you see we had a good year recently with everybody at advanced low and same with writing. So very wonderful and impressive. So students essentially do what we want them to do if they remain in the programs.

Next question: is that enough? That's sort of a bare minimum to either interact in a culture or to read and then learn. Here is what students at that level cannot do. So they cannot hypothesize, they cannot speculate, they cannot hold the floor long enough to support an opinion with facts. And they can't use a broad array of technical language. What do I mean by technical language? I don't mean stuff about computer science. But I mean the language that one needs in a content period, so for literary instruction it’s all those words like metaphor, tropes, stanzas. Hundreds of technical words related to literature. They don't know any of that yet. If you switch to polisci, it’s the same thing, the words related to politics or economy, they don't have.

I want to focus on this technical language stuff a little bit here. Show you this. This should strike fear in your heart. So end of first year, we get students. Now this is in the English cognate languages. So I looked up how many words there are in English. There are about a million words in english. When I looked up how many words there are in Arabic, they got into a big debate about that, maybe 650 000. Anyway here we are, end of first year and in most of our programs students learn about 2000 words. That’s actually a lot of words. By the end of second year they learn another 3000 words. Also terrific. That only gets them to that bare minimum of being able to use language at the paragraph level. Then you ask the question, how many words do you need in order to read literature or upper level cultural texts, or something in the New York Review of Books, that sort of stuff, so the estimate is around 15000 words. That is a lot of words. That 15000 doesn't count student understanding of metaphor. And this is something I am trying to do some research on.

So when students are down in this range they still have that one word one meaning. And then when we push them into literary texts, then a key suddenly has to become something different, it has to become an idea. When they see key, it’s something in a door. Fuente in Spanish, this is a classic, so they learn "fuente" (fountain). When the teacher starts, they have got fountain in their heads. And I see this over and over again. It’s almost the words that they already know that cause the most difficulty. They have to suspend what the world means in order to make it mean something else. It's an underestimate for what we want students to be able to do.

[Speaker] does 15000 include words derived from same roots?

No, these are unique words.

So let me bring you now to my anxiety business. So I am going to talk about these four anxieties. About quick fixes, about the need for reading and writing in those really advanced levels and about the university policy that we sit among right now. We have to remind ourselves that we are not a quick fix, we are a big fix for the world's problems. But we are not a quick one. Let me tell you something that happened to Joel [00:35:46] and me, two years ago when we presented the annual review of the Language Center to the committee on undergraduate studies. There was an undergraduate on the committee and she said: "Oh, you know, I really wanted to apply for an internship at the World Bank but they wanted me to know Arabic," and so she sat back and she said, "So why can't you all offer pop up Arabic?"

Just think about that, we were incredibly traumatized, we are still incredibly traumatized by that undergraduate. We did not think that anyone would bring something as crazy as that. But that’s what they teach here, in that, it’s not far from here, those people with the post it notes, the Pop up Arabic sounded totally rational to her. All of that quick fix kind of stuff, pop up Arabic, is reinforced in the media everyday. You see Rosetta Stone testimonials, you see Duolingo miracles, and the most recent one Babel, "I learned everything I ever needed through Babel." So what really concerns me is that this kind of advertising has people believing that all one needs is some sort of sentence level stuff, what they learn by the end of second year Arabic, second year Hebrew. All that people need is sentence level ask and answer questions. The problem is people ask me all the time: what do you think about Rosetta Stone? Well, I have to confess I too have used Rosetta Stone. I tried to teach myself French with the Rosetta Stone. I got through about 7 weeks of material in our program in probably 4 months of study. So it wasn't terribly efficient and I drove everyone nuts around me. Can I say this in French? Can I say this in French? But my point is, you know they can work, they can help, if you are going to do a 3-day excursion somewhere, sure, go get yourself Rosetta Stone. But it’s not what we want students to be able to do. We don't have a knowledgeable public that understands that sentence level language is insufficient. We don't have a knowledgeable public that understands that just putting your foot on foreign soil is not enough. Another anecdote, so you may have seen this about two weeks ago, during the bombing of the Syria Crisis, the former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was on CNN talking about Assad and he said "you know we Americans really thought Assad was going to be western leaning because he had studied in England and we could write an e-mail," he said, but "we soon came to understand that Assad must have sat in a room in England by himself because he was not comfortable using English and," Ford said, "all of our interactions with him were always in Arabic"

Then I went and I looked at how he speaks english. It’s very measured. it’s very sentence by sentence. Nice pronunciation. But you quickly have this sense that if this guy got off topic, he is a goner.

But I love the anecdote because it shows the kind of power one culture has over another. And also that we assume that because someone has been somewhere they must know what’s going on, or that they are sympathetic towards the culture, and none of that in this particular case was true. I will go to my next point of despair.

Here is another point of despair, we sit in a university that by politics and practice believes that going abroad for three weeks is better than not going abroad. Kind of hard to argue with that. Who doesn't want to go abroad for three weeks? Not a bad thing. But then that leads students and the public to believe that the students have studied abroad. No, they have gone abroad. They have not studied abroad. And when you just go abroad, you run the risk of just creating more ugly Americans. People who believe that other cultures are quick fixes that you can get in your three week visit. Another discomforting notion: we live in a university that supports sending students abroad with no prior language experience. This again reinforces the belief again that anybody can walk into a culture with no preparation, not speak with anybody from that culture because he can't, and then return home feeling culturally enlightened. But they are not. That really really worries me in connection to what we are doing on the global stage. So that is the end of my set of anxieties. I appreciate your attention. I hope I gave you a sufficient overview of the research context and where our students fit in with that and I hope that I have infused you with some anxieties. Don't let people off the hook about how difficult the material that we teach is. It is extremely difficult. It drives me nuts that we act like learning computer science is more difficult than other things. Well I would posit that learning Arabic, Turkish, Persian or Hebrew is hell of a lot difficult than some of that stuff. We don't talk about it that way because we are afraid of sending students away. Please don't let people talk about global citizenship, which is the new lingo that's coming in the university, don't let them talk about that without explaining to you the role of language in that. We hope to be able to argue: you are not globally with it, if you can't operate at least in some culture on the terms of that culture. So I am just going to end with, we have got to become the public fix that we know deeply in our hearts that we are. But we gotta start talking about it that way. So, thank you.

[Alexander] I am going to abuse my position as an organizer by asking Elizabeth the first question. I couldn't agree more, and I think, one of the things that struck me, and I wonder what you thought about this, is that, the big surprise, the most shocking thing to me is what the advanced level can't do. And the data all shows that in two years we are getting people to the advanced level and we kind of want them to do things that they can’t do as a sign of language proficiency. And so the obvious things within our power to at least think about is to make people do four years. If we achieve so much in two years of language learning, four years of language learning would produce more achievement. Then, I wonder what are the structures we have to do this in? It seems to me it's the majors that the departments control, which do assume that it's a four year journey. I don't think that students think that CS, one CS class gives them enough CS. I have heard students say things like, "I only did a minor in CS, not a major. I can't really do that." And we just have to say the same thing. The major would be the structure with which we could make it clear to both the university and the students exactly what you are saying, that this takes more than two years.

[Elizabeth] But you have to look at our own data about majors. It's not like they continue with two more years of language learning. They don't get any better. They are stopped at the advanced low level, at least in the data that they do at the annual majors assessment. Is it that they can't learn anything? No. It's that they are not given those opportunities to continue to use the language, which means ultimately that the professor needs to step back from the material and let the kids lead with the material. So there is the serious pedagogical issue with the way the literature major has been structured. Then there is another funny issue that Japanese has solved, Chinese and the Russian, too. Now they continue with third year language. So you can take third year Russian, fourth year Russian, fifth year Russian... You can do that in Arabic too, right?

If you look at Chinese and Japanese, you see people into those upper ranges because they have had more explicit courses. That’s not true in the other majors. So there is a funky structural thing going on.

[Russell Berman] I want to ask a question about the impact of the volume of instructional facetime. Students in the first year get 150 hrs. Would it accelerate learning to have one on one learning?

[Elizabeth] No, no, that would make everybody crazy.

They have to have some sort of community to work with.

[Russell] Would it make any difference if first year was not 150 hours but 300 hours.

[Elizabeth] Absolutely. That would be great. It would depend on how crazy it would make students doing that time of intensive stuff. I would venture to say pretty close. So that would be two hours a day rather than one hour a day. But there are other structures we could use. We could use weekends very effectively. Meaning we could have two days or even one day of six hours of immersion. You know, to do stuff in the language. There are lots of other things I think that we could restructure.

[Khalid Obeid] Did you mean one-on-one tutoring outside the class?

[Russell] That's an interesting question but that’s not what I asked. I asked that if we had infinite resources, is a smaller class better than a bigger class?

[Elizabeth] It can't be really smaller than five, that gets too stressful and it shouldn't be more than 15. So there's an upper and lower limit.

[Khalid] In addition to our classes, the hours that students attend, the instructional minutes that the students attend in the class, we have the conversation partner services which are free for the students and yet the students at Stanford are so busy that even a free service to enhance their speaking skills they barely go to.

[Vered Shemtov] Even without the resources, students are not interested. They think it’s too much. [00:52:28]. Intensive summer programs. Maybe a different model of Stanford abroad.

[Elizabeth] So we have this wonderful program called Sophomore College. What would be really interesting is, learners at advanced low level where would they be after 2 weeks if they put their mind to it. I think they would be pretty strong. They would be low-intermediate. These are all things that I think we could try [00:53:23].

Then I want to come back to what you are saying. The public, what we need is a public that understands that this is important. What the public thinks is important right now is a high paying job out of Computer Science. That's what they think is important and that’s the message they send. By and large in my view the University sends that message also. That we brag about where we are and employment scales and whatever. So we don't have the university that we did twenty two years ago that said "hey, it's really important that our students learn another language." And in the same way with all these global, the global studies major and all that jazz. Those people are not hitting back in the way that they should, and say "you can't do this unless you have some serious language behind you." So those are the people I think we need.

[Vered] Second part of the question was that, one of the models that I was thinking of for Hebrew. We cannot do four or five because we get lots of students in each class. So we end up with this model that cuts more from Yoga or things like that. Where it’s a lifetime, you are here for a very long time, you are going to be in a group of people that have different levels and you just work towards becoming better and better. And not think about yourself as now I am at this level or now I am that. It's really a life long task...

[Elizabeth] Kind of a one room schoolhouse kind of ...

[Speaker 3] Five students, fifteen..

[Elizabeth] That’s an interesting also structural thing you could think about.

[Alexander] Following upon Russell's point and the question about class size. Cause I find myself doing the same sort of thing in Arabic, that in order to get you to five, to the functional class size, it would be better to have multiple levels in a class of five than it would be to have a class of two or a class of three.

[Elizabeth] I would agree with you. That is what I would at least want to look at.

[Speaker 4] Hello, hi, thank you so much for your talk and for spreading the word and educating. I, uh, I have five comments with three subpoints like my advisor but I am not gonna do that to you at all.

So I have seen the data on European languages when I interned at the Language Center two years ago, so I have been anxious for the past two years and it's a really long time to be anxious. So my question would be about bridge classes. So for instance in French or Portuguese we have writing intensive classes that are supposed to prepare us for literature classes in these languages. But what I have found both by being a student in these classes and by observing them is that they are bridges to nowhere. So I want to ask: is there's no data on writing proficiency in literature classes?

[Elizabeth] No. We could do that, we could invite our students to take the corollary [00:57:20] . We could do that maybe we should do that. I started doing the reading thing, the students are in the advanced level in reading. That's really good but, I think, the message I want you to take away is there's no such thing as the bridge course. Because they are not far enough along, they finished those two years and they need to keep going, they have, what, 14500 words yet to learn. So those other courses, those upper level courses that have more content, whatever that is, upper level literature and cultural texts. Those need to continue to have that heavy language learning agenda. Where there's attention to that and they can't be offered in English, that's just... I don't know what to call it.

[Speaker] This is my experience [00:58:36] teaching language by introducing summaries or technical vocabulary. There are all these cases I have heard of students complaining that this is like high school. We shouldn’t be summarizing literature.

I mean, I don't think summarizing is such an easy task. So I am so surprised... I wonder if it's presented in an infantile way. I mean summarizing what happens in the story is a pretty important skill. There are a bunch of students who are not going to do a lot of stuff.

We are not going to convert the whole 6000 of Stanford students. But there is a 1000 that enter each year at an intermediate-mid level of some language. That's a lot of kids, those are the kids that we should worry about. I can't worry about the ones who are automatically rejecting me. I can't care about them. But I do care about those that we could really do something with. I think some of the students might realize that summarizing is challenging and difficult but at that level it might be that they want to do interpretation. [01:00:37]

[01:00:49] I wonder if there's any indication that some of them might be taking language for strategic purposes, in terms of diplomacy or intelligence, I don't know if they are thinking of it that way.

[Elizabeth] The way they are presented at least from the Language Center is that a language should be for your academic purposes not for our academic purposes. So they should be able to use it in the way they see fit. Which is for strategic, or if going in the military they get a higher salary if they know a language, it's amazing the relationship with the financial thing.

[Alexander] It strikes me that, this question about the summaries. There's like a student confusion about where they should be on their four-year journey with the language. When Elizabeth lays out the stages and when we look at the pyramid thing, the proficiency ratings, it's absolutely clear what the journey is. We just haven't efficiently translated that journey of proficiency development into a series of courses that they understand cover certain periods and are able to do certain things at certain stages of their four years at Stanford. It's like, and why I keep coming back, and I know, I mean I think the problem is always the number. I keep coming back to the question of majors, it is the only tool we have.

[Elizabeth] Stop it. Stop doing that. Just, all of us in this room, and everyone in this building, we need to stop. We have had our minds colonized by this enrollment thing. We are never going to be, Arabic will never be highly enrolled. It won't. What we need to do is say, with those five kids we can make them real serious users of Arabic. That's what the world needs.

[Alexander] When I said majors, I meant majors as the structure to create something for those five kids. Oh, maybe. Because what other structure do we have?

[Elizabeth] As long as we also use the 'you have to' language, I think that’s not getting us anywhere. I never supported increasing the language requirement. We already have a thousand kids a year, If we increased it the only thing it would do is to put another bunch of angry kids into Spanish. You guys are not going to experience, German will not experience a big boom. It’s not going to happen. Just get out of that mindspace. We can bring our students to an excellent level but we have to have a public and a university that really believes that also. Believes that it's important, and they don't believe that right now.

[Speaker] Do you have any thoughts on what can be done outside of the university to shift this perception?

It just seems like such an enormous intractable problem to me.

[Elizabeth] That service learning, kind of works in Spanish it’s not going to work for the rest of us. I am not certain about the wider public. I sort of take heart in the fact that we have a [United States] President who can only speak, at the bare sentence level... And I think people are starting to get a sense of "hey, that’s really not good enough." If you notice that he only lists sentences and he only uses the most basic vocabulary, like a junior high school vocabulary. He doesn't have any, he is not even in the 5000 word category. I think this is positive. So I think we can use that. But I think our best bet is the university. I hope you sent in your ideas to the [Stanford] president and the provost.

[Vered] I think it’s also important to think, if culture is so important to students, Language vs Literature classes. I am teaching both, you also don't get the culture in one course and there is a feeling that you can. That's also something that should be part of the conversation.

[Thomas] Are we doing anything to work with other universities to shape the perception about language learning in general. Because it seems to me that if we are talking about public perception we are talking about public influence, the role of the universities in rural america for instance, for whom the way the public speaks is music to their ears, right? So it would seem like those are institutions through which this broader goal of language learning could be shaped.

[Elizabeth] You are probably right, if you look at the MLA, Russell could probably respond to that. Pretty tepid about the language learning part of things. MLA is much more powerful organizations at some level among us.

[Russell] Well, that’s the class structure in higher education. If you are a language instructor you are with ACTFL; if you are a literature professor you look at MLA. There are very few crossover between universities and K-12. So in the departments the MLA has the prestige but the question was about public perception and [01:08:52] ACTFL is a much bigger organization. We should all be both...

[Alexander] Thank you all for coming [1:09.18]

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Comparing Literatures: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Urdu

Comparative Literature has spent the last few decades expanding its focus beyond Europe and the Anglophone Americas. But has it succeeded? Departments around the world include scholars working on Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, and to a lesser extent Turkish, Urdu, and other non-European languages. But the desire for coverage remains a chimera, always tempting with the prospect of inclusion: "if only we had somebody who did…" What would success, even if we subscribed to such teleology, look like?


One answer is that we would simply know more. We would have more information, more data, to answer the questions with which the discipline is concerned. Some of those questions are older: What is literature and what does it do? and some are newer: What happens after/beside humans? A representative selection of questions can be found in the 2014-15 Report on the State of the Discipline from the American Comparative Literature Association. Doubtless, information from outside the Anglo-European sphere is improving this conversation.

Is it enough to know more and ask the same questions? What happens if there are different questions? It is hardly a surprising observation that literatures outside Europe have different constitutions and concerns. Trying to render them in a vocabulary intelligible to European or Anglophone audiences is a translation problem, and it becomes sharper when the ideas being translated are themselves self-conscious theories, attempts to carve reality at different joints from those at which Comparative Literature is accustomed to cut.

These observations push us to realize that the direction of travel is critical: do we build theories in European languages and then test them on the world, or vice versa, or neither?

This goal of this Colloquy is to ask and start to answer these questions: what should it mean for Comparative Literature to engage outside Europe? Where is the field now, and what could change? What does Comparative Literature look like when thought through the literatures of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Urdu?

The languages of this Colloquy broadly reflect the interests of the participants, many of whom come from a constellation of literatures with roots in a part of the world given various names: the Middle East, the Near East, the Islamic world, the Islamicate world, West Asia, and so on ad nauseam. The nausea comes from the inevitable problems of power and agency: the East was only Near or Middle for European colonialism, and academic neologisms such as Islamicate or West Asia scarcely have the power to hold sway within the ivory tower, let alone outside where the words people use have their own genealogies. Our aim in this Colloquy is not to readjust all the names and labels but rather to start with the literatures we know, and ask questions of our disciplines (literature, anthropology, translation) in the hope that some answers may prove useful when we think of other literatures around the world.

The Colloquy includes conversations that took place in recent years, book chapters and articles, and current think pieces—in addition to original scholarship, translation, and performance. It is open to new submissions.

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