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MLA Takes Up New Direction For Language Study

In this report in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik describes an MLA panel on redirecting foreign language higher ed away from the study of literature toward the study of culture, politics, and more (how should one put this?) mundane yet practical texts.

Nearly everyone I speak with about language study at the intersection of national security says the same thing, and have been saying the same thing for a long time. They also complain that academics, from professors to department chairs to deans, have obstructed such a shift, mainly out of political fears of (as Mary Louise Pratt was quoted in Jaschik’s article) the “securitization of language study.”

One problem with such a narrow view (Pratt may or may not hold the view; that’s not my point) is that it’s not just the military and intelligence agencies suffering a shortage of language professionals; it’s also education (which needs teachers) and the court and medical systems (which need interpreters). Liberal academics should actually get behind the professionalization of language study because it’s one good way to ensure that Americans and visitors receive equal access to legal justice and adequate health care. This was my argument in a New Republic piece last year about why a stronger language czar was needed than pending legislation would create.

Domna Stanton, president of the MLA, responded with this:

Michael Erard suggests that the United States create a language czar who can “put in place a national language strategy to take us through the next 50 years” (“Tongue Tied,” October 24). As president of the Modern Language Association (MLA), which promotes the study and teaching of languages and literatures–with 30,000 members in 100 countries–I take issue with the notion that language is best viewed as a “commodity” to be handled by an office in Washington, D.C., rather than as an integral part of our nation’s educational institutions and pursuits. The study and use of language are crucial to our country’s strength and well-being in areas that range from the cultural and historical, to the economic and technical, to the military and scientific. The best way to nurture and promote language learning is not, as Erard suggests, by creating a centralized language bureaucracy, hampered by overregulation. Instead, we ought to channel more federal, state, and local resources to support and expand ongoing programs at schools and universities across the nation that provide thoughtful and comprehensive language study to a wide range of students. To this end, the MLA supports an educational language policy that encourages the study of foreign languages here at home at every academic level and engenders greater public awareness of the importance of understanding other cultures and languages to our profound and diverse national and international interests. Language study that both allows one to read Proust “in the original” and serves the needs of national security is surely a good thing. If we do both with excellence, our nation will be the richer for it.

This is how I responded:

The problem with Domna C. Stanton’s solution is that it’s more of the same: If the schools and universities she touts are so successful, then why do we have a shortage of language workers? We do need a language czar: to solve immediate crises (such as the shortage of Chinese teachers described in my article) in ways that fit into a long-term strategy; to fight for language program budgets in peacetime; and to ensure that hospitals, schools, and courts–not just the National Security Agency and the FBI–are adequately staffed with language experts. We don’t need a language czar who will merely make more language speakers; we need more language workers, which requires rethinking what we teach and why. I understand the logic that makes the MLA bridle at the word “commodity,” but I used the term to point out that the cultural value of language is always linked to social prestige, human capital, economic competitiveness, and jobs–in other words, an economic value. That’s where addressing America’s language issues should begin.

Two more points: One, the resisters should provide tools to the students, then let them decide how they’re going to use them, instead of infantilizing young minds. Second, even literary study has been “securitized,” in the sense that the study of American literature is mostly the study of writing in English, the hegemonic language of the expansionist state apparatus. This is Werner Sollors’ argument, which he makes with much piquance in The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature.