Literature and learning a foreign language

mjd   Friday, April 09, 2004, 08:45 GMT
I was reading an article the other day about a college that did away with its foreign language program. The dean of the college, who incidentally had majored in Russian when he was a student, argued that one doesn't gain fluency by reading literature, which is pretty much what one does when taking advanced courses in a foreign language at the university level (Although there are many universities that offer foreign language courses on business these days).

The dean recalled a story from his college days when he went to do post-graduate work in Russia. After four years of reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. he thought he would be ready upon arriving in what was then Leningrad. While moving his stuff into his apartment, a man called over to him. The man had to repeat himself three times before the dean understood that he was just asking if he needed some help.

The dean's new plan was to introduce a bunch of "study abroad" programs so that students could gain practical knowledge of the language. Needless to say, the staff of all of the foreign language departments were none too happy about all of this.

When it comes to conducting business and knowing "just the bear necessities" of a foreign language, then I guess the dean has a point. One doesn't learn how to shoot the breeze with a bartender reading the works of Realist authors from the late 19th century. However, if one really wishes to learn a language (in other words, if the person is passionate about it), which is in essence learning a different way of seeing the world, I think it is necessary to have an understanding of the culture and the history of the country whose language you wish to learn. It's for this reason that I think students are missing out if these courses are taken away, not to mention the fact that this undoubtedly leads to ignorance.

I'd be interested to hear the opinions of others.
Clark   Friday, April 09, 2004, 09:26 GMT
Hey, Mjd! Well, I agree that one must have more to learning a language than just literature. But it seems to me that when starting out learning a language, you do not start on reading the classics in that language. Instead, one learns some phrases, and then some grammar. And then as the student progresses, he or she goes into higher levels of whatever language. So by the time a person is in a literature class (or an "upper division" language class), the basics should already be known.

Well, that is how I see it. The immersion way of learning a language works, but more times than none, I would imagine that people who have to sink or swim have taken an introductory class or something to help them with whatever language.
mjd   Saturday, April 10, 2004, 21:32 GMT
I guess the dean's theory is that the "introductory course" would be the total immersion during the study-abroad courses. It's undeniable that one's fluency does rise dramatically during total immersion. However, this does not mean that one will develop an appreciation for the history and culture of the country whose language he/she is studying.
Jordi   Saturday, April 10, 2004, 23:03 GMT
One can obviously learn to speak a language perfectly without knowing the contribution that language has made to world culture. You don't need a college for that as most immigrant or even native speakers know. I'm sure that the dean, after reading Tolstoy during 4 years, picked up the language quite fast in Saint Petersburg and he probably should have appreciated the local culture more than most of the locals themselves. Sadly, after reading his comments, I have the feeling that he majored in the wrong subject and that he should have become a chartered accountant to suit better his future office as dean.
Clark   Sunday, April 11, 2004, 00:01 GMT
That is a good point, Mjd. Language classes teach people about culture too. So for example, if a student takes Nepali 1, and really likes it, the student might want to major in the language; or, the student might want to go buy a Nepali phrasebook when the first class lets out for the day, and travel to Nepal and live happily ever after :-)

Regardless, language classes are the best way to introduce people to a language. The whole reason I fell in love with language (and French) is because taking language in high school is a requirement.