Skip to main content

New school takes innovative steps in language learning

May 09, 2008

This kind of foreign language education systematically teaches differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview…. In this course of acquiring functional language abilities, students are taught critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception.
They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans – that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others.

–“Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World,” May 2007

A little more than three years ago, leaders at Arizona State University empowered a group of faculty members from the Department of Languages and Literatures and other units to plan a new school that would preserve and enhance a traditional education in language, literature and culture while at the same time providing the opportunity for students to embark upon an innovative, transdisciplinary learning experience.

Their approach to the teaching of language and culture, as it turns out, prefigured in several ways the approach to languages and cultures advocated a few years later in an important Modern Language Association (MLA) Report on foreign languages in higher education.

After months of collaborative effort by dozens of faculty members and final approval by the Arizona Board of Regents, the School of International Letters and Cultures (SILC) replaced the Department of Languages and Literatures in the summer of 2007, approximately the same time the MLA released “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.”

The report emphasized the integral relationship between language and culture as opposed to an overly narrow and utilitarian approach to languages that have been the norm.

“What is interesting is that plans were already taking shape at ASU that clearly anticipated many of the recommendations that appeared in the MLA Report,” says Robert Joe Cutter, founding director of the school and professor of Chinese.

“We were responding to elements of President Michael Crow’s design for the New American University and operating from a belief that a new structure could better provide superior training in languages, literature and culture, while at the same time facilitating study and research that could transcend cultural and disciplinary boundaries,” Cutter says.

The school is among several recently assembled schools at ASU, but it is the only one situated in the humanities. Organized into five faculties

– Classics and Middle Eastern Letters & Cultures; East and Southeast Asian Letters & Cultures; French and Italian Letters & Cultures; German, Romanian and Slavic Letters & Cultures; and Spanish and Portuguese Letters & Cultures – SILC boasts more than 20 language specializations, nine undergraduate degree programs, six certificate programs, four master degree programs and a doctoral degree program in Spanish. The school also has a Linguistics and Language Program that serves in part to promote best practices in language teaching and to provide professional development opportunities to language professionals on and off campus.

“Many observers have lamented America’s general lack of knowledge about other countries and cultures and our inability to see the world as others see it,” says Cutter. “Of course, there is no better solution to this problem than the study of other languages and cultures.”
Increasing language enrollments nationally over the past five years reflect a growing awareness on the part of students of the value of foreign language and culture study. Of the 13 percent enrollment growth, Arabic and Chinese experienced the largest gains, says Cutter. He adds that Spanish, French and German remain the most popular languages to study.

The school fulfills another MLA recommendation in its cross-disciplinary research.

“Language and literature scholars tend to be interdisciplinary by nature,” Cutter says. To allow students to cross the boundaries between languages and disciplines, a new transdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program is in its final stage of approval, and a transdisciplinary doctorate degree is in the planning stages.

“This is not just about teaching language – it is about history, culture, globalization,” says ASU President Michael Crow. “We need to move away from the notion that we are simply creatures of social constructs.

“It’s a significant part of a rapid period of evolution here at ASU where we’ve asked the deans and the faculty to work together to evolve those communities of scholars and communities of teachers to have an opportunity to be transformative.”

The school’s ongoing Work-in-Progress Lecture Series gives faculty and other members of the school further opportunities to discuss and conceptualize prominent cultural discourses. Advanced classes to be taught in Chinese in cooperation with the history department and other units are under development, and there are plans to offer such “content” courses in other languages, as well. As recommended in the report, a number of the school’s faculty members also work with K-12 educators to bolster language learning, and faculty train students in effective translation and interpretation practices.

It is only the beginning for the School of International Letters and Cultures. The school’s insightful leadership and commitment to a global education in the 21st century have offered a promising first chapter to its future.