The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

Approximately 80% of American citizens are monolingual, and the largest part of the rest are immigrants and their children. This statistic from Russell Berman, outgoing President of the MLA, in his valedictory message to the MLA convention in Seattle this past January. Berman’s address is a rousing and also practical defense of the humanities in general, and especially of the role of second language learning in developing a society fully capable of engaging the global culture within which it is situated. From his address:

Let us remember the context. According to the National Foreign Language Center, some 80% of the US population is monolingual. Immigrant populations and heritage speakers probably make up the bulk of the rest. Americans are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, thanks largely to the mismanagement of our educational system from the Department of Education on down. In the European Union, 50% of the population older than 15 reports being able to carry on a conversation in a non-native language, and the EU has set a goal of two non-native languages for all its citizens.

Second language learning enhances first language understanding: many adults can recall how high school Spanish, French, or German—still the three main languages offered—helped them gain a perspective on English—not only in terms of grammar but also through insights into the complex shift in semantic values across cultural borders. For this reason, we in the MLA should rally around a unified language learning agenda: teachers of English and teachers of other languages alike teach the same students, and we should align our pedagogies to contribute cooperatively to holistic student learning. We are all language teachers. For this reason, I call on English departments to place greater importance on second language knowledge, perhaps most optimally in expectations for incoming graduate students. Literature in English develops nowhere in an English-only environment; writing in any language always takes place in a dialectic with others. With that in mind, I want to express my gratitude to the American Studies Association for recently adopting a statement supportive of the MLA’s advocacy for language learning.

Berman goes on to recognize, however, that this strong and reasonable call for educated people to be conversant in more than one language is largely sent echoless in to the void. Less than .1% of the discretionary budget of the Department of Education goes to support Language learning. Indeed, I suspect this is because so many of us, even in higher education, are dysfunctional in a second language. I often tell people grimly that I can ask how to go to the bathroom in four different languages.

Nevertheless, in an age where we call for global engagement and in which we imagine the importance of preparedness for a global marketplace and want our students to be citizens of the world, it is irresponsible to continue to imagine that world will conveniently learn to speak English for our sakes.


Giving students what they want whether they want it or not

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that one study shows that in some cases e-textbooks are saving students the grand total of one greenback per course. Figuring in the costs of hardware, tech support, infrastructure, and etcetera that are adding immensely to the cost of tuition anyway—not to mention the disappearance of a secondary market where they can resell their textbooks–I really wonder whether, so far, e-textbooks might not be costing students money in the short run. Until there is a much larger economy of scale I suspect that cost savings will remain negligible. Even then, it’s not clear. Though general consumption of e-books has skyrocketed in relative terms over the past couple of years, the cost of e-books has actually crept upward such that the difference between the cost of an e-book and the cost of a paperback on Amazon is small, and clearly costs more than a good used paperback available easily through Amazon’s resellers or through good used bookstores like my favorite, Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg.

In some ways I’m even more interested in the practical and usability costs that students are experiencing. According to the Chronicle, many students struggled to know how to use the technology effectively and lacked the basic computing skills necessary. Professors were called upon to be IT instructors. This flies in the face of our ideological conviction that young people naturally adapt to technology in a way their professors do not. I don’t have a grasp of the details here, but it surely seems that some professors are being required to spend time away from their disciplines in order to get students up to speed on how to use the technology.

The electronic rental model caused a few other headaches for students and professors at the college, according to the study. Some students struggled to use the e-textbooks, thanks to disparities in basic computing skills. Those problems led some professors to spend class time conducting their own in-class tutorials, and even afterward a few said it was unclear who should be providing continuing technical instruction—faculty, campus IT staff, or representatives from the publishers.

And, of course, predictably, there are massive infrastructure issues involved with swift changes to e-books as the basic tool of the university.

Even students who adapted to the technology quickly sometimes struggled to open up the digital course materials during lectures. Wireless networks in classrooms where several students were using e-textbooks at once sometimes became overwhelmed, making access to publishers’ sites inconsistent.

I should probably say that this is not a screed against technology or e-books. I do almost all my own occasional reading on my iPad, and I do read e-books, though I continue to prefer the old codex for anything over about 20 pages long. I do think, though, that we ought to proceed cautiously with the notion that technology is the salvation for better learning at a lower cost. Once we add in the infrastructure necessary to make sure students can use the technology effectively—hardware, software, sufficient bandwidth, tech support and training for students and teachers on a permanent and consistent basis (really 24 hours a day given the way education is heading)–its unclear that students will have really saved anything, because to be sure it will be the students or their parents who are paying for it.

I think, to be frank, that there is a certain inevitability about this transformation to which we will all have to adapt and are already adapting. But we really ought to justify that transformation on the basis of whether students are learning more or not rather than on costs savings that I don’t think are really happening. I just think we need to get clearer on the advantages or e-books to students learning, if they are there, before we give students even more of what they want whether they want it or not.