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As with other important disciplines, the study of languages is a long game. We are preparing for new linguistic technologies, emergent languages and uses of language, international alliances to come, unpredictable migrations, and global conflicts and collaborations that have not yet arrived. Language departments offer two kinds of preparation for these futures: research and teaching. There has been a lot of focus on the teaching of languages, and I’ll return to that. But we need to say more about research in world languages, since the mission of the university includes making as well as communicating knowledge. It’s our job to wrestle with the ideas at the heart of urgent problems, generate new knowledge, and create solutions that improve our lives and the lives of our neighbors. That’s what research does.
We have had a hard time articulating what research looks like in the language-and-literature disciplines, which include linguistics and the philosophy of language, as well as the study and making of expressive cultures in an enormous range of new and old media. Just as scholars of chemistry generate new processes or compounds that can spin off into foods we eat, synthetic fuels we use, or technologies that change the way industry or government operates, so scholars of literature and language do work that crosses the boundary between studying and creating, the academy and the public. They are writing for a variety of audiences and contributing their expertise to legacy and new-media journalism, national and international policy decisions, the shape of K-12 education, and museums and digital databases that inform us about the history of our environments, ideas, art, science, government, music, and taste.
Basic research involves taking risks, following paths that sometimes lead nowhere — sometimes to surprising new discoveries. It takes decades of basic research to create the groundwork for major innovations. There could be no vaccine for Covid-19 without years of well-funded research in immunology and related disciplines. No one knew we’d need that vaccine when we did. But when the moment came, scientists working together were able to produce it quickly. Several of our most urgent social and political challenges of the present and recent past have required the expertise of humanists and the application of basic research in the language and literature disciplines: the racial reckoning catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd and the international acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement; open access to artificial-intelligence tools, especially the language-based ChatGPT; and the military, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Europe prompted by Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.
Scholars who have studied the history and language of racism in cultures across the world have been called upon to translate the ideas and impact of Black Lives Matter as they traveled as a decentralized movement from the English-language context of the U.S. into other languages and other regions. What were those protests in the streets of Paris all about, and how did they compare to the protests throughout the U.S.? It is basic research about the history of “Blackness” and anti-Black racism across different cultures and languages that allowed journalists, human-rights groups, activists, and policy makers to think about what Black Lives Matter has meant on a global scale and how to respond to its calls to action. Scholars of language, linguistics, media, and ethics have been on the front lines of thinking about the limits, opportunities, and risks of chatbots such as Open AI’s ChatGPT. Faculty members in language-and-literature departments, many of whom work on the history of language technologies, on philosophies of language, and on the ethical implications of artificial intelligence, are helping us understand how the rapidly developing technologies of ChatGPT and other generative artificial-intelligence models are likely to affect the way we communicate through the written word, the way we teach writing, and the way workplaces will be structured in the future.
Students are recognizing the new timeliness of Russian, German, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean, not to mention Spanish, Polish, Arabic, and Japanese.
Scholars of Eastern European languages and cultures, including those who study the early history of those regions, are providing expertise in national and regional languages, while also helping us understand how the territorial borders, constituents, and cultural identities of those areas have been contested and reshaped over many centuries. They are helping us understand the political, social, economic, religious, and racial implications of being inside or outside of Europe, and helping us reflect on the comparative hospitality shown to different groups of migrants, some of whom are regarded as “European” and some of whom are considered foreigners or merely visitors for reasons of appearance, language, ethnicity, or religious practice. Military decisions, humanitarian aid, immigration policy, and diplomacy have relied on the expertise of many disciplines, but those who study the cultures and languages of Eastern Europe have been essential.
Students in world language-and-literature courses are taught essential skills that help them engage and lead in areas of new technology, industry, human rights, diplomacy, and government policy. In language-and-literature departments, undergraduates are taught to analyze how words are used to defend, argue, incite, and imagine. They are taught how to deploy words, as well as images and audio, to create their own arguments, documentaries, stories, poems, and criticism. Creative writing is booming. These days it involves digital composition using images and audio, as well as printed words. Students from all over campus are eager to make and distribute videos, screenplays, images, apps, and interactive compositions and to bring those skills into a range of careers and life experiences they will pursue after college.
A survey conducted in 2020 showed that 68 percent of our students at Rutgers speak a language other than English at home. Last year, when we asked our students to create bilingual essays and videos answering the question “Why do I learn languages?” dozens of students replied, in more than 15 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Noor Rasheed, then a biology and neuroscience major and a Korean minor on her way to becoming a doctor, explained that she wants to be able to understand her patients’ viewpoints, including how the word for “pain” conveys something different in Korean than it does in English. She was raised speaking Urdu, later learned English, and started Korean as an undergraduate. This trajectory, she explains, led her back to Urdu and has also inspired her to begin studying Mandarin Chinese.
Majoring in psychology and Japanese, with strong interests in graphic arts, Soren Pham explains in a video animation that learning another language has helped him think about how to reach audiences in other parts of the world. Testimonials from students like Noor and Soren can give faculty, academic leaders, and other students a more textured understanding of what motivates their education and why finding ways to combine neuroscience and Korean or psychology and Japanese have been valuable to them. We can and should create minors and majors that combine the study of mental health and the study of cultures; the study of computational processes and ideas of language; the study of media and visual images and the design of new-media technologies; or the study of language, diplomacy, and conflict in major world regions, to take a few examples. These multidisciplinary programs and others like them have at least two upsides: they can help students craft more-bespoke, more-targeted skills, credentials for their lives and careers; and they prepare students for the kind of multidisciplinary expertise that is crucial to teamwork and problem-solving in law, business, industry, government, health, the arts, and civic organizations.
It is not only the lack of persuasive knowledge about the impact of world language research and education that keeps students from spending time in those courses. As university campuses become more diverse socially and economically, more students are arriving from underresourced high schools, which offered them minimal preparation in world languages. That means that many students are learning a language from scratch, and they may have additional prerequisites to fulfill in math or science education as well.
If we care about supporting the success of all students, especially those who cannot afford to extend college beyond four years or who need to work while enrolled, we must be flexible and creative about the structure of language pedagogy, including rules about whether elementary courses can count for the major or minor and where we set the bar for levels of fluency needed to advance in a major or minor. We also need to think about when and in what modalities we offer language courses. Just as some STEM disciplines have had to rethink the scaffolding and timing of prerequisites for students who were not able to take calculus or precalculus in high school, -language departments, and the universities that support them, will need to rethink how students enter language courses, receive credit for them, and build toward majors, minors, certificates, and interdisciplinary knowledge that they value and need.
Universities contribute to the knowledge we don’t yet have and develop the skills we don’t yet know we’ll need.
Faculty in language-and-literature departments are often the most accomplished instructors on campus, care deeply about classroom education, and devote a lot of time to teaching and curricular design, relative to faculty in many other disciplines. They are in a good position to be curricular innovators: They can take the lead, collaborating with colleagues across the arts and sciences, in rethinking the organization of programs of study in ways that respond to changes in the needs of our student populations, in our goals for community engagement, in our renewed imperative to contribute to the public good in visible ways. That means creating incentives for departments, which are often valued and sometimes funded according to the number of majors they can claim, to create programs that combine courses from social, cultural, and scientific disciplines. We need to accept that all our disciplines are hybrids or offshoots of other, distinct forms of knowledge. Instead of defending our ground as it is, we can be partners in building new ground. Faculty can lead this project intellectually, but academic leaders, who control budgets, need to support programmatic collaboration financially and strategically. And they need to expand the qualitative and quantitative metrics that they use to establish the value of fields beyond counting the numbers of majors and minors in the current constellation of disciplines.
We need to engage pragmatically with the question of where universities think they are headed, in terms of resources, expenses, mission, and constituency, and with the planning they are doing now to prepare for that future. Some universities are cutting language programs because of the comparatively low number of students choosing to enroll in them, and because they do not see a future for those disciplines within the strategic focus on social and technological challenges. Academic leaders should pause before making those cuts, for three reasons. First, because today’s minor language can be tomorrow’s major language, both in terms of geopolitical capital and student interest. U.S. students designing careers in global health, international security, financial markets, migration law, popular culture, and technology, to take just a few examples, are increasingly recognizing the new timeliness of Russian, German, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean, not to mention Spanish, Polish, Arabic, and Japanese. While fluency has been the gold standard and sometimes the only standard in the past, language programs are beginning to accommodate the fact that many students have time in their schedules to take four or five semesters of language but not seven or eight. It makes sense to lower the bar to participation both as a matter of access and as a matter of enticement. Students who have even some capacity and familiarity in, say, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Russian, will be able to engage, serve, and lead in their communities at home as well as abroad. Once a program is gone, it is very expensive and very difficult to bring it back.
Second, academic leaders should recognize that universities are not utilitarian spaces, nor should they be. Utilitarianism privileges the needs and interests of the largest number of people. But universities are collectives that thrive on the margin, both intellectually and socially. We benefit from outsider interests and outsider points of view, and indeed the cutting edge of any discipline is generally the outer edge, the space of growth, transformation, and contact beyond its norms. So, while any one university can’t do everything, we benefit from reach as well as depth. Our students should be able thrive across many fields, no matter if their interests fall in areas that are currently overrun, well populated, or modestly inhabited.
The third reason that academic leaders should pause is that the impact of basic research can only be known retrospectively. Without basic research in languages and cultures, we would not have had the expertise we needed when the war broke out in Ukraine, when the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in cities all over the world, and when parents, educators, and technology leaders raised alarms about ChatGPT. In other words, we can never know what we’ll need in the future. But universities can help us prepare for that future by supporting new research and new pedagogical initiatives in world languages, cultures, and media. It is a long game, but it is one of the principal ways that we contribute to the public good. Universities contribute to the knowledge we don’t yet have and develop the skills we don’t yet know we’ll need. World languages have always been, and should continue to be, a critical part of that project.