Reimagining the Future of Postsecondary Language Education at UW-Madison

On February 28, 75 educators and language advocates on campus gathered for the minisymposium “Reimagining the Future of Postsecondary Language Education to address the most pressing challenges in world language education todayParticipants–including several CREECA affiliates–had an opportunity to discuss the current landscape and brainstorm ideas to strengthen language education at UW-Madison. 

Participants engage in open discussion at the “Reimagining the Future of Postsecondary Education” symposium. (Photo courtesy of Laura Marshall)

At the symposium, Dianna Murphy, director of the UW-Madison Language Institute and associate director of the Russian Flagship program, shared the results of a recent campus-wide survey completed by 3,300 undergraduate Badgers. The survey asked students about their perspectives on the value of proficiency in languages other than English, in addition to their reasons for studying an additional language and factors that would make them more likely to undertake or continue language study.  

The survey, initiated by the UW-Madison Language Institute, was funded by contributions from twelve UW-Madison units that teach or support language instruction–including CREECA. The survey was conducted in response to a 2016 report of the Modern Language Association (MLA), which documented that enrollments in world languages have fallen by 9.2% at the national level from 2013 to 2016and by 19.8% in Wisconsin alone. 

Symposium keynote speaker, Stéphane Charitos (Director, Language Resource Center, Columbia University) framed world language education as “a field in crisis” citing previous MLA reports that collectively demonstrate a rapidly accelerating downward curvein the number of enrollments in non-English languages over the years. Referencing the UW-Madison survey, Charitos emphasized that it is imperative to understand who the new generation of (potential) language learners are so that advocates can effectively communicate the benefits of language study to them, and that educators can adequately adapt to their needs.  

Reporting on major, preliminary findings of the survey, Murphy highlighted the untapped potential to enhance language learning experiences at UW-Madison. By and large, survey respondents indicate that they do value the ability to use languages other than English, particularly in non-classroom settings. However, their responses suggest that connections between their language study and majors, personal interests, and professional pursuits could be much stronger. In addition, scheduling and course credit loads are huge barriers that prevent Badgers from undertaking or continuing language study.  

CREECA associate Dianna Murphy presents a key finding from the research report, “UW-Madison undergraduate student perspectives on the value of language study.” (Photo courtesy of Kristin Dalby)

In many respects, the glass has been half-full for CREECA-related language learning programs on campus.

The UW-Madison Russian Flagship Program, for example, directly ties language study to students’ interests, careers, and non-language majors. It is a federal initiative to increase the number of college graduates who are professionally proficient and interculturally competent in Russian. This goal requires a robust curriculum that exploits the best practices of highly effective programs, which include opportunities to use Russian in study and internships abroad, in co-curricular activities, and in relation to personal interests  

As Charitos emphasized in his keynote, less commonly taught languages have been especially vulnerable to cuts and reduced enrollments. However, the UW-Madison Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute (CESSI), part of the Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes (WISLI), offers intensive summer language instruction for Kazakh, Tajik, Uyghur, and Uzbek for undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, and other professionals. Depending on student needs, instruction is offered at beginning through advanced levels for eight weeks. CESSI is ideal for highly motivated individuals who imagine a Central Asian language as part of a career or their personal development. A WISLI program is likewise ideal for those who carry heavy course loads during the traditional academic year. The ability to offer these WISLI programs is a strong testament to the university’s commitment and collaborative approach to teaching less commonly taught languages.

The UW Collaborative Language Program (CLP) offers blended and online world language instruction for students whose language learning needs are beyond the capacity of their home institution. CLP serves approximately 400 students per semester, and courses have a 70% retention rate from semester to semester. CLP collaborates with postsecondary institutions within and beyond Wisconsin to expand access to learn languages, including Russian. Not only does CLP accommodate students’ already crowded schedules, but in challenging times, it can be reassuring to know that language learners can thrive in virtual settings. 

The Language Institute is in the process of preparing a white paper that summarizes key findings from the survey and will circulate it widely as soon as it becomes available.

Meanwhile, those interested in promoting, expanding, and strengthening world language education throughout the state for all Wisconsinites (K-16) are invited to read The Wisconsin Language Roadmap Initiative. This 2019 federally funded report describes the value of multilingualism, the need for multilingual talent across professional domains, and strategic recommendations to realize the vision of a “world-ready Wisconsin.

Written by Ryan Goble