Thursday, April 26, 2007

Foreign Languages at Drake University

An article from Inside Higher Ed, describes the drastic changes in Drake University's approach to teaching foreign languages (note, this doesn't seem to apply to teaching English). In their DULAP program, they have removed most of their language faculty and replaced them with native-speaking informants.

Before they begin their language studies, students take a course in language-learning strategies, taught by a faculty member. This, I think, is a great first step in a situation where you have many speakers of one language planning to study other languages. It would be much more difficult to implement in a many-to-one situation like ESL, especially with low-level students, but we already try to incorporate some of this in our program here, admittedly, at a very limited level.

After that, students meet their native-speaking informants regularly in groups of 5 (4:1). This is certainly a great opportunity and is something else that would prove popular and useful in most schools.

Of course, the contentions are around the role of professional faculty, specifically regarding accountability and quality. Not all the faculty is gone. There remains a skeleton staff. The program is supervised by a faculty member, and faculty also act as a consultants to the students and oversee their progress. Presumably they are in charge of assessment and grading, if such is part of the program.

But I think that removing most of the faculty is drastic and unwarranted. It devalues their role as anything but instructors (I assume that the informants are not carrying out research duties.) And it ignores much recent research showing the value of judicious instruction in grammar and vocabulary (again I assume that informants are not doing this kind of teaching.) All in all, it does look very much like a move motivated largely by the cost-savings.

The interesting part is that it seems to have been the university faculty themselves who voted to scrap the old structure. This likely speaks to the low regard in which the teaching and learning of languages are held. I know this is confounding TESL and the teaching of foreign languages, but few universities in Canada or the states give credit for English language classes. In fact, many English language programs are completely ancillary to the rest of the university. They often have no professors, only instructors, many of whom have only an unrelated B.A. and a TESL certificate.

Getting back to foreign languages, it would be interesting to see a program that combines the best of DULAP with the more traditional models. That, however, would probably cost more money, not less, so it's not likely to appear any time soon.

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