Janet Swaffar, Katherine Arens. Remapping the Foreign Language Curriculum: An Approach through Multiple Literacies. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2005. xiii + 217 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87352-807-8.
Reviewed by Karin Baumgartner (Department of Languages and Literatures, University of Utah)
Published on H-German (April, 2008)
New Directions in Foreign Language Teaching: Multiple Literacies instead of the "Four Skills"
This ambitious volume seeks to re-examine the teaching and learning of languages at North American post-secondary institutions. Janet Swaffar and Katherine Arens begin by describing the general malaise that lingers today in the humanities and in departments of foreign languages in particular. Despite omnipresent lamentations over the lack of foreign language skills in the United States (most recently during the presidential debates), Americans still seem unwilling to learn a foreign language and engage in the communicative literacies necessary for the new globalized century. The authors, to their credit, do not blame the public for this lack of interest, but suggest fundamental revisions to the foreign language enterprise across the board. Long-held notions end up on the chopping block: they criticize the (hierarchical) division of the curriculum into a lower-level language and an upper-level literature track, the piece-meal approach many departments take toward programming, the divorce of (literature or cultural studies) scholarship from language learning and teaching, the inability of foreign language programs to articulate a sense of mission, and the possessive nature of faculty members toward their courses. Instead, they lay out a new mission for foreign language programs that encompasses "teaching students the social and linguistic framework of texts and genres for spoken and written communication--across time periods, across cultures, and in multicultural frameworks" (p. 5). Their vision of foreign language teaching is noble and broad; indeed, they claim that students must be taught the ability to engage with culture (in general), with its forms of knowledge and communication, and with various publics here and abroad. Such a mandate, the authors hope, would put foreign language departments at the center of the humanist enterprise once again and make them central to fields as diverse as the social sciences, economy, or the law. The ultimate goal of the volume is a political one: it seeks to transform students into citizens able to engage productively with foreign cultures.
Swaffar and Arens propose a holistic curriculum that links meaning and language in mutually productive ways across an entire course of study. Such a curriculum cannot be achieved without painful soul-searching in language and literature departments. Indeed, the authors want to do away with precisely that split (languages and literatures) denoted in the names of many foreign language departments. The new curriculum they propose demands long-range planning, a complete redefinition of what we do in beginning language and upper-level literature classes, and a long hard look at the outcomes departments purport to achieve. These outcomes (and the goals that precede them) might change with time, the authors argue, and are certainly not the same for every department, since different institutions have different educational goals (for example, an engineering college versus an art school or a traditional liberal arts college). Foreign language departments, Swaffar and Arens suggest, have to be sensitive to the educational mission of their constituencies and respond to "market forces" more willingly. Only if foreign language departments integrate themselves better into the mission of the university and the humanities in particular can they achieve the ambitious goals Swaffar and Arens set out here.
At the center of this book are both adult learners and literature scholars unprepared to teach beginners, and the book explores productive ways these two might meet. It is a relief to see that the fiction of the beginning language learner as form-deficient student has been jettisoned. Rather, Swaffar and Arens assume that beginning language students come into the classroom with a sophisticated understanding of communication and the codes guiding their language use in L1 and propose that these strategies need to be transferred to L2. Accordingly, they propose a shift from form to content, or rather they propose entry-level courses as steps toward content learning. For this shift to succeed, the authors have developed a matrix, or in their words, a pedagogical approach they term the précis.
The précis is a way for students to articulate the ideas of a text through textual language. This bottom-up methodology allows students to develop meaning from a text that is neither formulaic nor overly personal. Rather students gather information from within the text and pay attention to the rhetorical and cultural strategies used to accomplish communicative goals. Swaffar and Arens argue--convincingly--that it is possible to guide beginning L2 learners toward a sophisticated understanding of the communicative tasks shown in the text, and help them think in genre rather than linguistic task (for example, in asking for directions). The précis is task-based and leads students in a clear and increasingly complex sequence from topic identification to patterns of textual information to the articulation of well-supported arguments. The book gives several examples of how this strategy can be applied both in the beginning and the advanced classroom, and shows how a wide range of textual material (including film, advertising brochures, manuals, and other items) may be used. Students following this model no longer read for vocabulary or grammatical constructions, but for ideas, genre, and rhetorical strategies, and in pursuing such a course of study, they become sophisticated practitioners of cultural discourse. In turn, the authors maintain, this approach makes the language classroom a more interesting and challenging locus for faculty trained as literary scholars.
The pedagogy described here moves from a skills-based (where students can reproduce certain grammatical forms or vocabulary items) to a task-based approach. In fact, the authors break one of the long-held taboos of foreign language teaching: the mandate of total immersion. They admit that, in order to achieve their goal of multiple literacies, English might have to be used in the beginning classroom, or that students should be exposed to similar texts from their own culture to understand adequately the communicative task in the foreign language. This move has been long overdue and the authors certainly have the stature in the field to propose breaking with doctrinal orthodoxies. What concerns me here is the move away from measurable skill acquisition. If departments are encouraged to describe individualized goals and outcomes, and if we neglect linguistic accuracy in favor of cultural literacy, how are we to certify students' linguistic skill level? In more pragmatic terms, how can we provide standards for cross-national comparisons? Are foreign language departments not giving up an important service they perform for the business world? Furthermore, how are we to certify student achievement in a world where students rarely finish their degree at the institution where they started? I fear that the approach laid out in Remapping the Foreign Language Curriculum weakens one of the core mandates of foreign language departments.
The authors are quite right in their assessment that a successful foreign language department has a comprehensive vision that articulates a progressive and sequential course of study for all majors and minors. Implementing such a vision might stem the hemorrhaging of students at the crucial juncture between the second and third year, when students go from language classes into literature classes. In order to be successful, however, the authors' approach will need to be implemented even more broadly, with collaborations between high schools and colleges and the college level and graduate programs. The particularism the authors criticize in the generic foreign language program is even more pronounced if we look at language learning as a journey from elementary or middle school to college. Little collaboration occurs between colleges and the high schools from which their students come and many students find the transition burdensome and unrewarding. Foreign language programs on the college level do not build on skills and literacies students bring from their high schools and high school teachers scarcely know what goes on in college classrooms. It seems, therefore, appropriate to call for foreign language programs to coordinate the reorientation of their curriculum with the high school level, a task that cannot be achieved by a single foreign language program here or there. Rather, achieving such a task would takes the concerted and coordinated effort of the various AATs (American Association of Teachers of French, German, or Italian). Equally, the transition from the college level to graduate foreign language classes is hard on students who are now expected to put aside concerns about language acquisition. Too many graduate faculty members refuse to view their role as invested in linking meaning with language, and the authors are quite right that such a reorientation cannot stop at the college level.
This study is a timely contribution that dovetails well with the MLA report Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World (2006). The report, too, presents a scenario where, without fundamental changes, foreign language departments will not be in a position to provide leadership in advanced language education. Serious consequences might ensue, the MLA authors write, as "language learning might migrate to training facilities, where instrumental learning will eclipse the deep intellectual and cultural learning that takes place on college campuses." The stakes are high both for in-demand foreign language departments (such as Spanish, Japanese, or Chinese) and those currently out of favor (French and German come to mind, but many other languages are equally unpopular). Remapping the Foreign Language Curriculum should therefore be mandated reading in foreign language departments across the nation, and especially the first two chapters, which lay out the current problems. It is to be hoped that graduate programs, in particular, incorporate the results from this study in the training of future language teachers so that they become sophisticated cultural practitioners in the debates about the survival of our profession.
. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World (New York: Modern Language Association, 2006), 7, available at http://www.mla.org/flreport (Accessed April 7, 2008).
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Karin Baumgartner. Review of Swaffar, Janet; Arens, Katherine, Remapping the Foreign Language Curriculum: An Approach through Multiple Literacies.
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