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Rethinking Language Pedagogy

Jennifer Redmann offers insights into how to keep foreign language learning alive at universities.

Between 2016 and 2020, average college student enrollment in foreign languages dropped by 15.4%, according to the Modern Language Association. The trend has only continued since—largely due to the rise of global English, language learning apps, and AI translation software. Universities all over the country have responded by cutting their foreign language programs. For example, in August, West Virginia University announced their plan to cut all of their world language classes and programs, with the exception of a select few courses in Spanish and Chinese. In response to this and other similar announcements, Professor Jennifer Redmann of Franklin and Marshall College presented at a Humanities Center Colloquium on September 28, 2023, about how to keep foreign language learning relevant and appealing to students.

Student lays on couch with legs up on the back, holding a Spanish grammar textbook over her face, and more books open on a table in front.
Photo by Leeloo Thefirst

Redmann began by discussing the reasons for the decline in world language majors at so many universities. Essentially, many students feel like foreign language majors won’t lead to good jobs, and universities don’t want to fund programs that students won't sign up for. Redmann’s solution involves a significant overhaul of the current model for these programs to make them more interdisciplinary and more appealing as second majors or minors.

The current paradigm for foreign language programs involves a two-tiered curriculum where lower-level courses teach skills such as grammar and vocabulary, while upper-level courses focus more on content such as literature and cultural studies. Redmann pointed out that this approach means that lower-level courses can never double as general education classes, while the upper-level classes that could double have too many prerequisites. It also means that many students assume they could learn just as much from an app on their phone as they would from a 100-level language course.

Redmann's alternative approach blends content and skills learning so that even beginning-level courses include knowledge that would both qualify the course for general education credit and appeal more to students. She said, “Our object of study is not just language skills or literary studies, but how languages work, and our goal could be fostering literacies.” She shared some potential methods for introducing literary and cultural content to lower-level courses such as using youth literature and getting students writing about interesting topics rather than just making up random sentences to practice vocabulary.

For upper-level courses, Redmann recommended that universities incentivize collaboration between faculty of different colleges so they can offer interdisciplinary courses. For example, language professors could collaborate with faculty from a business or engineering program to teach about how those industries work in other countries and the types of cultural issues students might face if they want to work overseas.

At its core, foreign language learning fosters true communication, and Redmann encouraged faculty to focus on this deeper goal. She said, “Communication is not a simple transaction, but rather a constant negotiation that is complex and multilayered. And we help students understand that.” She hopes that as universities apply her new approach, students will gain better communication skills that will help them in their professional and personal lives, whether they continue speaking the foreign language or not.

Learn more about the Humanities Center colloquium series here.