Language Programs are Muscle, Not Fat

Covid-19 and the reverberations of its disruption continue to touch every corner of our economy and society. We are extremely sensitive to the difficulties that many people are facing. We feel fortunate that our mission aligns with recovery efforts. Last post I touched on how our work can help people get back to work. This week feels like a return to my heartland: academia.

For the first decade of my career, I had the privilege of working with talented and passionate language teachers at one of the nation’s premier centers of language teaching and learning. While all educators are worthy of praise and respect, I have particular admiration for those who work in language teaching. Their passion and expertise are unique blends of both science and art. Don’t let their berets, scarves, and travel-ready wardrobes fool you, this lot is scrappy and tenacious. Not only has the gritty work of language acquisition made them tough, but they also faced budget cuts, department mergers, accusations of irrelevance, and waves of jingoism that are disheartening and frankly insulting to their lives’ work. They are strong, smart, and whole-hearted; our communities need language educators more than ever.

Lasting Effects of Education and Recession

The abrupt pivot to full distance instruction was just the start of what is sure to be a transformative period for higher education. As a path back to campus instruction comes into focus, new threats loom. Certainly, the health risks associated with lecture halls, dormitories, libraries and the commons remain and will require a new normal.  However, these changes will largely be temporary protocol and procedure adjustments–innovation fodder for an army of capable campus staff and administration.

The real elephant in the dorm room has a $$$ tattoo on its lower back. Reduced enrollment is inevitable with incoming freshmen taking gap years for the dust to settle or tragically lacking the support they needed at the end of their high school senior years to successfully matriculate. International students left in droves and may not be willing or able to return. Few in-process students and their families will be unaffected by the economic downturn. However, tuition and fees are only part of what keeps the lights on for colleges and universities nationwide. Net tuition makes up less than half of the total educational revenue in the United States.  Reduced state  tax revenues and diversion of funds to address public welfare needs will inevitably raise some difficult discussions about what can and should be cut.


Let me lead with this: language programs are muscle, not fat. This is not the time to trim back direct and indirect competencies that make prospective graduates more employable. Full stop. If my voice keeps one dollary-doo in a university language center, I’ll be both flattered and grateful. So by all means, send this to your language-department chair, dean or university president; it wouldn’t be the first time I was in their offices (freshman year I was a custodian). In all seriousness, I have a winning strategy to offer but I can’t take credit for it; it’s straight from Stanford Language Center’s director, Dr. Elizabeth Bernhardt’s playbook.

Language Acquisition and Reporting

Now unless you are at a university or college with a world language program or foreign language program that is better funded than Stanford’s Language Center, this is where I need you to stay with me. You’re thinking, “we can’t afford nice things, certainly not Stanford nice things.” And I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. You really probably can’t. I mean their website says their classrooms are ‘equipped with state-of-the-art multimedia technology, including DVD, enhanced academic television, and internet access.’ Friendly poke aside, in 2020, it’s not their DVD players or internet access that sets Stanford’s Language Center on the top shelf or keeps funding locked down. As Dr. Bernhardt explained at a round-table discussion on the threats to university language centers across the country, she credits her center’s success to its release of a data-rich annual report each year.  

When you get a few pages into the report (yes they are available on-line here), the university’s language performance standards are described. Each language department or language program has articulated and published performance standards in each skill. In summary, the goal for first-year instruction is that a student demonstrates intermediate-mid performance in languages similar to English (cognate languages) and novice-high in languages that are further from English (non-cognate languages). Anyone can state what their expectations are but the real magic in the report is when they present their success in meeting these standards with data. In the appendix, clear bar graphs represent the percentage of enrolled first-year students that achieved each performance level (on the FSI-ACTFL scale) in each of the major languages taught. So at a glance, you can see what percentage of enrolled students met or exceeded the standards set by the language center and university stakeholders. 

This type of report is decision-maker and donor catnip.  Comprehending what it means for a person to be at a certain ability level in a foreign language is a challenge.  A bar graph is admittedly an over-simplification of the wonder that is language acquisition, and it would be impossible to report the broad secondary benefits that come from time spent learning a second language in an appendix. However, Stanford’s annual report can be shown; the language report can be held; it can be shared. It’s much harder to cut something that you have to look in the face. Stanford certainly wouldn’t risk living without their annual report or most importantly the data that it contains. Which makes you wonder why anyone would? 


The easy answer to this question is that ‘the Stanford commitment to language acquisition’ is not cheap. The report describes the lengths they went to mine the gilded dataset in it. They developed the computerized system that they use to collect student performance data and send them to their cadre of trained human raters. For a technology powerhouse like Stanford, the home-built language testing platform was certainly the easy bit. It’s the human component that is the challenge. Maintaining a stable of language testing raters is a lot like maintaining a stable of racehorses — relentless and expensive. The fact that Stanford would spend the money to build instead of buy tees up another cold fact. 

How to Save Your Language Program

Traditional market solutions for language testing are too expensive. Certainly too expensive to test at the cadence that you need to test if you want to tell a complete and compelling story about the difference you’re making in every student’s language journey.

If you are going to do at the end of the first year what most universities wait to do until the end of the third or fourth year and keep doing it every year after, you need cost-effective, scalable language ability testing solutions.

This was Dr. Bernhardt’s concluding call to action. Those that had something to offer towards developing and delivering such solutions needed to step forward. Her message was inspiring and for me it was timely. It caught me at a crossroads where I was considering a pivot and an offer to do exactly that.

I could remain at a university that was already implementing best language assessment practices and had been described as the gold standard when it came to language placement testing. It certainly had been a privilege to learn from and work among the very best.  Or I could leave and join a team that sees a world where the gap between the language assessment haves-and-have-nots has been eliminated. Emmersion believes that every organization including colleges and universities should have access to language assessment solutions that allow them to effectively and efficiently measure and leverage their language ability capital.

If you’re a university program that currently does little or nothing, we can help. If your language program does something but you’d like to do more, we can help. If you’re Stanford and you’d like to save some money so you can upgrade your DVD system, we can help. Also thank you for career advice, Dr. Bernhardt. I hope to do it justice. 

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