Published in ADFL [Association of Departments of Foreign Languages] Bulletin, 28.3 (1997), 46-47.
Dept. of Modern Languages
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011-6004
Daniel Eisenberg is chair of the Modern Languages Department at Northern Arizona University, and maintains the foreign language chairs' listserv.
The 1996 ADFL seminar devoted a session to the challenge the profession faces from the growth in Spanish enrollments and the parallel decline in other languages once more commonly taught. In response to the call for comments, I am offering my thoughts after several years of managing Spanish enrollments at a large state university in the Southeast. I'm glad to be in Spanish, and would not want to change places with anybody. My purpose in writing, however, is to show that for whatever perspective or consolation it may bring, Spanish is no bed of roses either.
Not only is a large program more complex to manage than a small one, an excess of demand for classes is at least as problematic to handle as an excess of supply. While there is no shortage of literary scholars with the doctorate, there is one of part-time, ill-paid faculty used to staff Spanish language classes in every large program I know of. As a result, we are often scrambling for even marginally trained or experienced instructors to put in front of classes. It is much more common for French or German language classes to be taught by a professor with the terminal degree.
Spanish class sizes are of course larger. Typically all sections of basic classes are full and we have a line of students demanding to be admitted to the full sections. Teachers of these larger sections notice the very visible difference in size between their classes and those of other languages and wonder why they teach 30 students while a French or German instructor teaches 15. This problem is magnified when, as often happens, a tenured faculty member in a less-taught language teaches basic language courses for a professor's salary. $6000 a course would be a representative figure. Yet the Spanish language instructor, teaching the same level of material, is paid $2500 for a sometimes much larger class. The Spanish teachers understandably want the person in charge to do something about this unfair situation, yet one can do nothing, at least in the short term.
The larger average size of the Spanish class reduces the time the instructor has for interaction with each student. The quality of instruction suffers, and instructors burn out. It follows that the student's experience is poorer, and the students who experience the crowding are frustrated. The average student in a Spanish language class, even with the best efforts of everyone involved, receives poorer instruction than the average student in a German or French class.
Of course we are not happy or complacent about this state of affairs. We in Spanish want the students' experience to be every bit as good as that of students studying other languages. We struggle to bring down class sizes, to find well-qualified instructors, and to get fair pay for our instructors. Yet I think this is a reality we must acknowledge.
The other unhappy facet of the increased demand for Spanish instruction is the students' goals. If they sought to better themselves intellectually, expand their horizons and gain a liberal education, the boom in Spanish would not have occurred, since study of another major language would serve just as well. The new students who take Spanish in such numbers do not seek self-improvement or the joy of learning. The goal of the majority is entirely utilitarian: they choose Spanish because it is a skill that will enhance their career prospects. This does not make for a high-level academic atmosphere in the classroom. Because those who need Spanish for career purposes are seeking primarily to talk with monolingual immigrants, there follows what I view as an overemphasis on oral skills. My special interest is the teaching of reading proficiency, which is in my view the gateway to knowledge, culture, and self-education. I do not recall a student who specifically sought instruction in reading Spanish other than to satisfy a graduate school language requirement.
The goal of the students I am familiar with is not usually to communicate with people residing in the Spanish-speaking countries, who speak and write a standard, educated register of the language. Whether they can articulate it or not, it is to communicate with a heterogeneous body of Hispanics in a predominantly English-speaking country. This further complicates the task of the overworked Spanish instructor. U.S. Hispanics come from an extremely wide variety of geographical, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds. Those who are poorly educated may use dialectal or colloquial varieties of Spanish. It calls for higher skills on the part of the non-native speaker to speak with this target population. This counter-intuitive reality is seldom ackowledged by either language texts or the profession. Since the students do not realize how high their goals for Spanish learning really are, they can emerge from their basic classes feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.
The student who studies a less-taught language has made more of a commitment to that language than the typical student studying Spanish. These quantities of students who crowd our Spanish classes typically have the most prosaic of motivations: they value it as a job credential. Many, perhaps most of them, are not even very interested in Spanish or Hispanic culture; some would be just as happy taking Swedish or Pushto, if it promised to help their careers. One is therefore typically faced with a classful of students who are not particularly interested in the subject. It is a challenge to maintain one's morale when faced with such a class, and it is a drain on those students who are truly interested.
We who became Hispanists made a commitment not to the language, or not the language alone, but to the culture. Some aspect of it moved us or captivated us or fit so well with some interest of ours that we made a lifelong commitment to Hispanism. Yet the boom in Spanish language enrollments has not been accompanied by a parallel boom in Spanish courses other than language, which have increased at a much slower rate, or even declined. The proportion of Spanish students in the language classroom who share our enthusiasm for our Hispanic culture, or even for the beautiful Spanish language itself, has thus dropped markedly. Spanish is just something one needs to take, like it or not: a chore.
So a final word for those of you who teach languages whose enrollments are dropping. We understand the anguish you face over the future of study of your languages, and are glad to be spared it. Yet there are at least some aspects of your situation that we envy. Your time is in many ways freer, and you can sometimes participate in university activities and offices that we cannot allow ourselves. You have more opportunities to experiment with new and sometimes expensive technologies and pedagogies, which may enhance your students' experiences. You are also freer to expand the scope of your curricula to include courses in literature in translation, cross-disciplinary work, general education courses in culture and literature, honors seminars, and the like. Small classes, committed students, interest in culture - it sounds utopian, viewed from the rough and tumble of our corner of the academy.