Liberal Education

The World Language Curriculum at the Center of Postsecondary Education

Despite research showing the broad impact that the study of foreign languages has on the cognitive development of young people (Armstrong and Rogers 1997), and despite the importance of language expertise for America’s economic and geopolitical interests in the twenty-first century, the teaching of world languages has been marginalized within the American educational system at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. The evidence for the marginalization of world language instruction is abundant, from the exclusion of world languages from learning outcomes assessment in the context of No Child Left Behind to the removal of foreign language requirements from general education programs and the elimination of world language programs from college and university curricula in response to the budgetary challenges of the past few years.

It is possible that the marginalization of world language instruction is a product of the pervasive advertising of products that promise to deliver fluency in a box, suggesting that the purchaser of one or another CD series will be able to “speak Spanish like a diplomat” or “woo an Italian model” with only minimal effort. The success of such advertising—in in-flight magazines, for example—lends support to the notion that one can simply “pick up” a language, despite the fact that we generally don’t expect people to “pick up” other performative skills, such as playing basketball or playing the piano, without substantial practice and coaching. The impact of the marketing may be reflected in the decisions of some school boards to replace live world language teachers with site licenses for commercially produced foreign language software (see, for example, Rundquist 2010). A similarly pernicious trend obtains in the postsecondary context, where world language programs are simply eliminated (without the benefit of site licenses), as has been observed at institutions such as the University of Albany or Louisiana State University. Although some universities believe they (and their students) can do without language expertise, our economy and our national government clearly cannot do without it.

The trend to eliminate or outsource world language instruction comes at a time when the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has established, through its Proficiency Guidelines and Standards for Foreign Language Learning, both performance benchmarks for the assessment of learning outcomes and guidelines for curricula development—achievements not observed in some other academic disciplines that are considered more “mission central” by many institutions. In Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century, the National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project (2006) presents a set of standards that constitute a remarkably accurate reflection of the Essential Learning Outcomes established through the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007). The ACTFL standards identify the following five content areas for foreign language study, called “the five Cs”: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. Each of these areas of focus for the world languages curriculum correlates with the LEAP goals, as described below.

The five Cs and the Leap Essential Learning Outcomes

With regard to second-language communication skills, students in the world languages classroom must develop interactive and presentational speaking skills, interpretative skills in listening and reading, as well as writing skills in the target language (i.e., the language students are studying). The development of these skills has a significant impact on the improvement of communication skills in the students’ native language, as described by Cunningham and Graham (2000), for example. Indeed, research on the effect of advanced foreign language instruction shows students’ awareness of a direct correlation between their study of rhetoric in a foreign language and their use of rhetoric in speech and writing in English (Rifkin 2000). Thus, world language instruction that is focused on communication skills also directly relates to the development of students’ written and oral communication skills, one of the “Intellectual and Practical Skills” included among the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes.

Students’ communication skills cannot be developed in a vacuum within the foreign language curriculum. Indeed, students must develop cultural competence in order to use language sensitively and to understand the practices, perspectives, and products of the people whose language they are studying. This, of course, is a near paraphrase of the LEAP focus on “Personal and Social Responsibility,” which calls for the development of intercultural knowledge and competence. Study abroad, preferably for a semester or an academic year, would certainly constitute the culmination of this kind of work. It is not surprising that study abroad is identified as one of the most transformative experiences of undergraduate education and is, therefore, identified by Kuh (2008) as a “high-impact” educational practice. Indeed, a study published by the American Psychological Association (Maddux and Galinsky 2009) suggests that students who participate in study abroad demonstrate remarkably strong performances on tests of creative thinking, yet another of the LEAP “Intellectual and Practical Skills.”

The National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project uses the term “Connections” to refer to the student’s use of the target language “to reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines.” Students should “acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints . . . available [only] through the foreign language and its cultures” (2006, 9). This is a critically important approach to the teaching of world languages because it establishes the value of using the language to enhance inquiry and to exercise critical and creative thinking, goals also identified in the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. The category of “Connections” also seeks to foster integrative learning, yet another LEAP outcome, by combining work in the humanities with work in other disciplines—most commonly in the social sciences and the arts, although the potential for work in mathematics and the sciences through foreign languages is just as important, if not as frequently realized. One of the best examples of just such a powerful combination is the International Engineering Program at the University of Rhode Island (see, which combines the study of engineering and language with study abroad. For most students, the exploration of these other disciplines through the target language is achieved through the use of the Internet, requiring nuanced information literacy skills for the assessment of the quality of information accessed.

The category of “Comparisons” provides students with opportunities to learn about the nature of language itself by comparing their native or base language with the target language, and by comparing their own culture with the cultures where the target language is spoken. Work in this area enhances both communication skills and intercultural knowledge, and it provides students with a foundation for practices associated with the area of civic responsibility and engagement on a global scale, as I will explain in the next category.

In the “Communities” category, students are required to use the target language not only in educational settings, but also beyond them. A mere thirty years ago, foreign language communities existed largely in physical spaces beyond the political borders of our country. Today, students connect with target-language communities in their own cities here in North America, with thriving neighborhoods where the lingua franca may be Chinese, Creole, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Urdu, or Vietnamese. Indeed, some institutions are creating service-learning opportunities, sometimes embedded in courses for academic credit, for students to visit target-native speakers in ethnic communities, sometimes newly arrived immigrants. The students help with important tasks—­tutoring for citizenship testing, opening a bank account, getting a library card—or they interview target-native speakers in elder care communities and listen to their life stories. For students for whom such communities are not conveniently located, there are communities of target-language speakers as nearby as the closest Internet connection: students can access target-language media, social media, and gaming communities at the click of a mouse.

Study abroad remains the most important instantiation, sine qua non, of community engagement. But these other opportunities constitute an important bridge for students planning a study abroad experience in the future and for students looking to maintain language and cultural skills (and relationships) after their return from study abroad. In connecting with native speakers in both physical and virtual communities, students experience integrative learning, develop intercultural competence, and become lifelong learners who use the language to learn about the world around them. Moreover, more and more study abroad providers are developing service-learning opportunities for their students, such as helping build homes in China or working to clean up national parks in Costa Rica.

Integrating world language curricula

Given the close relationship between the Standards for Foreign Language Learning and the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, it may be surprising to some that many world language programs represent endangered species in both K-12 and postsecondary education. An underlying cause of the lack of support for world language instruction may well be the fact that most graduate programs in foreign languages and literatures focus on the training of graduate students in the area of literature, rather than in a more broadly defined cultural studies paradigm. As documented in the report from the Modern Language Association Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages (2007), postsecondary foreign language programs tend to have two classes of “citizens”: tenure-stream faculty with power and status who teach upper-level courses in literature, and part-time faculty without power and status who teach lower-division language courses. In many universities, the disconnect between these two classes of instructors and between the two parts of the curriculum they teach creates a situation in which world language programs may have few majors, few alumni supporters, few faculty colleagues in other departments, and few employers interested in hiring graduates whose foreign-language expertise is narrowly literary. Indeed, in some institutions, nonmajors choose to study a foreign language and to participate in study abroad in order to attain language skills and to use them in a context other than the interpretation of literary texts.

On the other hand, world language faculty who conceptualize their courses as a curriculum, and build into that curriculum projects that engage students in the study of the world through the target language, will undoubtedly attract the support of students interested in the major. They will also attract the support of colleagues in other departments who are happy to participate in a foreign language across the curriculum project, as well as the support of employers who seek to hire students with language expertise. For example, students in a first-year foreign language class could work together in teams to develop a Wiki, in English, on a topic of interest, such as the economy or environmental problems in the culture they are studying. In the following year, to demonstrate the development of their foreign language skills, they could create a new bilingual Wiki, with some text in English and some in the target language. In the third year, the students could create yet another Wiki, this time entirely in the target language, flexing their linguistic muscles as they work together to integrate their reading and writing, using the target language to learn about the cultural perspectives, practices, and products of native speakers, and comparing those perspectives, practices, and products to those they observe in the United States. In the fourth year, they could again create a Wiki and connect with native speakers of the target language through social media (e.g., target-culture versions of Facebook) or through gaming environments (such as SecondLife or World of Warcraft).

Such an approach to world language instruction reflects LEAP’s focus on providing increasingly more sophisticated learning challenges, while integrating the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and the Standards for Foreign Language Learning. The redesign of world language curricula in accordance with the vision for postsecondary education reflected in both the Standards and LEAP can only strengthen the place of world language instruction in America’s colleges and universities, enhance the lives and postgraduate livelihood of our students, and support our nation’s economic and geopolitical interests.


Armstrong, P. W., and J. D. Rogers. 1997. “Basic Skills Revisited: The Effects of Foreign Language Instruction on Reading, Math, and Language Arts.” Learning Languages 2 (3): 20–31.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Cunningham, T. H., and C. R. Graham. 2000) “Increasing Native English vocabulary Recognition through Spanish Immersion: Cognate Transfer from Foreign to First Language.” Journal of Educational Psychology 92 (1): 37–49.

Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Maddux, W. W., and A. D. Galinsky. 2009. “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship between Living Abroad and Creativity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96 (5): 1047–61.

Modern Language Association Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. 2007. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. New York: Modern Language Association.

National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project. 2006. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. 3rd ed. Lawrence, KS: Allen Press.

Rifkin, B. 2000. “Video in the Proficiency-Based Advanced Conversation Class: An Example from the Russian Curriculum.” Foreign Language Annals 33 (1): 63–71.

Rundquist, J. 2010. “Computer Programs Replace Foreign Language Teachers in N.J. Classrooms after Budget Cuts.” Newark Star Ledger, June 27.

Benjamin Rifkin is professor of world languages and cultures and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey.

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