The Language Imperative

By Carol Murphy, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of French

Carol Murphy"To be an educated citizen today is to be able to see the world through others' eyes and to understand the international dimensions of the problems we confront as a nation--skills that are enhanced by international experience."

This quote, from the December 12, 2000 White Paper prepared by the Clinton administration for the Bush-Cheney transition team, stresses the centrality of internationalization to the mission of undergraduate and graduate education and to the vitality of research. It points to foreign language and area studies mastery as key, mandating that "international education become an integral component of US undergraduate education, with every college graduate achieving proficiency in a foreign language and attaining a basic understanding of at least one world area by 2015."

This top-level recognition of the importance of internationalization and its link with foreign language and area studies highlights the research and teaching missions of CLAS departments of African and Asian languages and literatures (AALL), classics, Germanic and Slavic studies (GSS), romance languages and literatures (RLL), the Program in Linguistics, and the Center for African Studies. In these units, mastery of a foreign language is actively integrated with many different content areas: literature, linguistics, film studies, archaeology, history, business, calligraphy, critical theory, second-language acquisition, and postcolonial studies, to name just a few of the many subjects that are accessed in and through foreign languages in CLAS. The burgeoning growth in study abroad, international faculty and graduate student exchange, as well as the increasing numbers of foreign students on our campus, have brought home the idea that linguistic and cultural proficiency is basic to being an educated individual in an increasingly globalized world.

The oft-repeated cry, "But, everyone speaks English," is no longer an adequate or even responsible reaction to the multicultural society of the twenty-first century. It is true, certainly, that English has become an interlanguage of useful exchange, but it is limited and oftentimes seriously misleading as a deep form of cultural communication. Dan Davidson, professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College, demonstrated recently how linguistic misinterpretation can go beyond cultural gaffe to deep divide. In an address to the Senate Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services, he stressed that high level mastery of a foreign language involves going beyond denotation to "read between the lines" of what is being explicitly said to get to the underlying cultural assumptions. Quoting former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel on the meaning of "democracy, freedom and humanitarianism," he reiterated how these words were transformed over the years by party bosses in Eastern Europe from positive concepts into cudgels that were used to launch wars and send people to concentration camps, "all in the name of peace, freedom and [socialist] democracy." These words can no longer can be innocently evoked in an Eastern European context. (1)

Carol MurphyAs the above example dramatically demonstrates, language is culture; it is not just about "placing out of" the foreign language requirement or mastering (berlitz-style) vocabulary and verb forms. Fortunately, foreign language and cultural proficiency is within reach of all of our students--and through many avenues. Innovative language learning with the help of the latest technologies in our expanding language labs and in our classrooms, study and research abroad with home stays in a host family, majoring, minoring or doing graduate course work in a foreign language department and participating in a Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum (FLAC) course are just a few of the paths to proficiency. In the latter, students enroll in a 3-credit upper division course taught in English, such as "Introduction to Latin American Politics" or "History of France" in the department of history and read and discuss class-related materials in Spanish or French in a 1-credit enhancement course offered by faculty in romance languages and literatures. Linguistic proficiency is actively integrated into acquisition of content area.

The research, publication, and teaching of faculty in language, linguistics, and area studies programs bridge departments, centers, colleges, and schools. The Center for African Studies program engages students and faculty with African languages such as Xhosa and Amharic. AALL intersects with business through the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) program, with Jewish studies through Hebrew language and literature courses, and with film and media studies in English with courses on Japanese film. Graduate and undergraduate students in political science with a good mastery of French can study at the Institut des Sciences Politiques in Paris, one of UF's newest collaborative partners. Classics department faculty regularly teach in the UF in Rome program.

Foreign students can learn English in the university's English Language Institute, and students can study 25 languages in the college. From Akan to Swahili, Catalan to Portuguese, Haitian Creole to Chinese, along with the more commonly taught languages leading to a PhD in classics, GSS, and RLL, the opportunities for language and culture studies are numerous. Whether faculty teach in the foreign language or in English, they furnish the intellectual, historical, cultural and linguistic traditions that frame the debate. This cross-cultural networking is at the heart of international education.

(1) AATF National Bulletin,Vol. 26, No. 2 (November 2000):14

Jane Dominguez

Return to Index