The 2007 MLA Report and the Need for More Interdisciplinary Courses in Language Departments

Many of us who teach in language and literature departments in the United States are used to a system in which student must complete language courses prior to enrolling in language and culture classes. This is, of course, not without reason: in order to understand and participate in courses taught in the target language about the target culture(s), one should have a solid grasp of said target language.

On the other hand, contemporary second language acquisition pedagogy argues that culture, language, and literature can and should be taught simultaneously. In college, I had an internship teaching French at a local elementary school (Chaparral Elementary in Claremont) in which we were required to design twice-weekly lessons that taught our 8-year-old students important vocabulary and grammatical structures while also letting them learn about French culture. I clearly remember one lesson late in the semester in which I and my teaching partner “recreated” a mini French marketplace that only sold baguettes (slices), cherries, cheese, and palmiers (a type of French pastry, for those who are unfamiliar). In our small class, half the students played the role of merchants (2 per market stall), while the rest were shoppers. (Needless to say everyone washed his/her hands ahead of time, and the merchants wore gloves.) We gave the shoppers our version of Euros (about 10 each), and let them know the prices of the wares so that they could make choices about what to purchase. In order to purchase, students would have to use the phrase “I would like,” and food vocabulary which we had learned and practiced during previous sessions. We had also covered the notion of gendered nouns and partial quantities, which students would need to request “du fromage” and “des cérises.” The merchants would need to reply with “Yes. Here is/are your cherries/baguette/cheese/palmier.” My teaching partner and I circled the room, gently correcting and commending grammar and pronunciation and offering explanations (“Are cherries masculine or feminine? Do you want one or many? That is why we ask for ‘une cérise’ or ‘des cérises'”.) We had apprehensions, but our market was a big success. Afterwards, while the students munched on their treats (the merchants also got the chance to buy from other merchants), we talked about marketplaces in France and showed a slideshow and videos of a market in Provence and all the things: fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, lavender sachets, tableclothes, spices, prepared dishes, and much more. We talked about cultural differences similarities and differences between grocery shopping in France and the United States. You can’t hope to teach young students (or older students, for that matter) all the nuances about shopping at open-air markets versus grocery stores in the United States versus France, but we believed our students had learned something not only about food vocabulary and French grammar but also about the cultural experience of buying dinner ingredients at a daily open-air market.

I’ve also had practice developing such courses at Harvard, in which I and my fellow Graduate Teaching Fellows teaching elementary and intermediate Spanish courses collaborated with the Course Heads who ran these courses. The Course Heads, who are linguists and hold Senior Preceptor positions at Harvard, design the language courses but happily accept input from the literature students who teach the courses, particularly as we grad students often design and share our own materials. These courses always integrated cultural lessons – using as many culturally authentic materials as possible – with grammar and vocabulary instruction. In our PowerPoints, for example, we often illustrated vocabulary by using works of art by Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, and Frida Kahlo and used popular comic strip characters like Mafalda and her crew to demonstrate grammatical points. We also used stills and videos of Spanish fashion shows to allow students to practice identifying colors and articles of clothing (and to say whether or not they liked them) and used the websites of Mexican grocery stores to allow students to identify the ingredients needed to follow regional recipes.

In recent conversations with colleagues at other institutions, I have learned that many universities are trying to add intermediate and advanced courses that allow students to deepen both their understanding of the target language and the cultural, culinary, artistic, and literary traditions of the target cultur(s). In 2007, the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages emphasized the need to rethink a system in which students’ only option upon completing language courses was to study literature. The 2007 MLA Report suggests “[r]eplacing the two-tiered language-literature structure with a broader and more coherent curriculum in which language, culture, and literature are taught as a continuous whole” (3).  The Report also indicates the need for a broader range of advanced and intermediate courses, which need not focus exclusively on national literature but also areas such as cross-cultural traditions and practices, historiography, popular and mass culture, and local and national sports (5). Such courses cater to the needs and interest of a wider range of language-learners.

I am currently in the process of designing such courses. Given my interest in transatlantic studies, I plan to spend much of the summer developing a course on costumbrismo that would short literary pieces, painting, and engravings and prints appearing in the popular press in addition to the historical events and the nationalistic rhetoric behind such cultural artifacts. Examples of materials the course would cover include the short narratives by Mariano José de Larra (1809-37) in Spain and Esteban Echeverría (1805-51) in Argentina and serialized albums such as Los españoles pintados por sí mismos (1842-43), which feature a collaborative efforts between authors and illustrators to define “Spanishness” in an age when many of its former colonies were also articulating their own self-definitions.

Myriad other possibilities exist. The recent announcement of King Juan Carlos I’s abdication offers the opportunity for a course on the role and representation of the monarchy in modern Spanish history, art, literature, and press. The upcoming World Cup and Spain’s 2010 victory in South Africa might prompt us to reflect on the importance not only of soccer (fútbol) in Spain but also of other sports and their gendered and classed history. These are only a few of many possibilities that I hope to explore as I develop interdisciplinary courses for a wider range of Spanish-learning students.

The 2007 MLA Report can be found here. Full citation:  MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.” Profession (May 2007): 1-11.

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