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Northwestern University

New Languages, New Frontiers

If it’s been several decades since you studied a foreign language at Northwestern, you might not recognize the language-learning classrooms of today.

Students of Arabic converse onscreen with Syrian refugees on the other side of the world. Italian students gain fluency by writing, filming and starring in their own soap operas. A flashcard app helps students master German prepositions on their iPhones.

Technology has opened new avenues for the study of foreign languages, a revolution that has educators rethinking some of their most basic assumptions about how languages are taught. At the forefront of this effort is Brian Edwards, the Crown Professor in Middle East Studies and chair of the Weinberg College Language Initiative.

Edwards is in the midst of reviewing the College’s approach to language study, a process that is likely to result in a bevy of new opportunities for students at all levels.

Interdisciplinary language classes, inducements to continue language study beyond a basic level of proficiency, and new ways to incorporate international students into the foreign-language curriculum are just a few of the ideas being explored.

Embracing complex thinking

Edwards is well placed to make such recommendations. A speaker of four languages himself, he recently served on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on Language Learning. The commission, which was charged by Congress to evaluate and recommend changes to language education in the United States, issued an attention-getting report in February 2017.

“Studying a second language to a level beyond competence is one of the most effective ways to embrace complex thinking,” Edwards says. “That moment when you actually start to think in a foreign language, as opposed to translating for yourself — something magical is happening. It’s a shorthand, in a way, for what we do in the humanities, which is to teach different systems of thought. Language study allows you to do exactly that.”

Edwards’s work takes place at what he acknowledges is a “fraught” moment, when enrollments in foreign-language classes nationwide are declining, even as higher education, business and society grow more global in nature. Many Northwestern students end their foreign language study abruptly after gaining the level of proficiency required for graduation.

Others never take a language class at Northwestern at all, having “placed out” as a result of their efforts in high school.

A competitive edge

But given the professional and intellectual benefits of continued study, Edwards says, they may be abandoning their language learning far too soon. Extended foreign language study has been shown to yield impressive cognitive benefits, such as an improved aptitude in math and English. Bilingualism has even been shown to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And in an increasingly global marketplace, a heightened fluency in a foreign language will provide a competitive edge.

“Americans are worse off if they are the only monolinguals in the room,” Edwards says. “If they are negotiating with people who are bilingual while they are not, something is going to get missed.”

One way to encourage students to continue their foreign language study is to offer upper-level classes in languages other than English. Most advanced language classes focus on literature as the pinnacle of study. But why not offer a discussion section in Spanish for an upper-level philosophy course, perhaps, or a history course in French?

Encouraging students to pursue their research interests in another language would also counteract the trend of study-abroad programs taught entirely in English. “Political science and economics are taught in all languages of the world,” Edwards notes.

“Imagine what it would mean to study Russian politics in Russian at Moscow State University, or the history of the Middle East in Arabic at the University of Jordan. There’s an opportunity to get to a very high level of fluency.”

Ultimately, Edwards says, he hopes to inspire students to pursue language study throughout their time at Northwestern and beyond.

“Language study was something you may have done in middle school and high school, but college is the time when we can say, ‘Now, we’re going to show you how to do something really cool with that.’ Or, ‘You’ve learned one language — now take the opportunity to learn another one.’ Because the ability to move between language systems is a level of higher-order thinking that will really allow students to thrive.”

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