From the Affiliated Societies column of the April 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Languages and the Study of History: A Report from an Annual Meeting Session

Thomas Adams, April 2009

TA roundtable session entitled “Languages: Sine Qua Non for Globalizing Historiography,” drew timely inspiration from the 2009 AHA annual meeting theme. The German Historical Institute, the Conference Group on Central European History, and the World History Association co-sponsored the session.

Moderator Thomas M. Adams cited a recommendation from the “White Paper on the Role of the History Major in Liberal Education” (which had just been released by the National History Center with support from the Teagle Foundation): “When possible, foreign language competence and foreign study should be encouraged so that students can engage historical writing, primary sources, and historical subjects beyond the United States.” He noted a converging movement from the Modern Language Association for a “broad, intellectually driven approach to teaching language and culture in higher education.”

Volker Berghahn (Columbia Univ.), an expert on German-American relations, pointed out, with telling anecdotal illustrations, the dangers of conducting research in foreign archives with inadequate knowledge of the relevant languages. On the teaching side, he also testified to insufficient language preparation among many American undergraduates who took seminars taught in German as part of their Junior Year Abroad studies at the Free University in Berlin, where he also offered courses to them last academic year. By dint of great effort, most were able to produce a creditable research paper, but they were off to a slow start initially. He argued for in-country immersion experience as a pre-requisite for doctoral work in history.

Carol Klee (Univ. of Minnesota) brought to the session her experience as an applied linguist in programs that allowed students to use and develop their language skills in a wide range of subjects. Language enhancement sessions at the university have supplemented a variety of courses on German, Spanish, and Latin American history, on Europe in World War II (with French), on women in European history (with Italian) and on modern Scandinavian, Russian, and Chinese history. Klee detailed the pedagogical lessons learned, especially the need to match students’ skill levels with the challenges of the texts to be read, and to frame the reading assignments with background preparation (new technologies can aid here) and questions to be pursued in post-reading sections. Student and faculty responses to the program are by and large positive. Historians say it is essential to work closely with language colleagues, and to recruit a critical mass of willing students before offering a language enhancement section.

A historian of Brazil, Alida Metcalf, and her colleague from French literature, Nanette Le Coat, commented in turn on their experiences at Trinity University in San Antonio in overseeing a thriving Languages Across the Curriculum program.

From the historian’s point of view, Metcalf described the varying emphasis on primary sources and secondary interpretations in courses ranging from a religion course that examined the Spanish text of Las Casas’ La destrucción de las Indias to a course in French that examined the historiography of the French Revolution. A course on the U.S.-Mexican Border used Spanish and English on alternate days in order to compare cultural perspectives on issues of shared or special concern. A collaboration with Saint Mary’s University allows students to study Portuguese there and the history of Brazil at Trinity.

Nanette le Coat described how efforts to break down the “two-tier” hierarchy of language instruction at the lower level and literature at the higher level has led to a broader cultural conception of the teaching of language, including but not privileging literature. Students are increasingly aware of the demands and opportunities presented by globalization, and they see languages as a vital component of international and trans-cultural study. At Trinity, students have been intrigued by courses such as a history course with a language component on the pre-history of the European Union, or a course on Mexican history that uses songs and corridos. The program of languages across the curriculum is by its nature interdisciplinary, opening up a space for collaboration and experimentation.

Chinese language instruction in the United States is growing rapidly with Chinese government sponsorship of Confucius Institutes in 30 to 40 new locations, reported Jonathan Spence, former AHA president and historian of China at Yale. Spence emphasized the vast range of the Chinese historical record, first inscribed in ancient bronzes and in stone, on silk, on paper, and on bamboo strips recently recovered by archeologists, and a complementary richness of interpretive traditions—both Confucius and Mencius commented on earlier texts. Students and professional historians seeking to master Chinese face a problematic definition of literacy in a culture diverse in dialects, where a shopkeeper may know 500 characters for his trade, drawn from some 80,000 available to the literati. Two years of language study barely crosses an initial threshold, and the accomplished Sinologist may find a need to access other languages as well: Manchu, Arabic, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, for example.

High school teacher Ane Lintvedt (McDonogh School, Owings Mill, Maryland), a member of the executive council of the World History Association, asked the panel how a deep knowledge of any given culture or language squares with the broadly comparative—if not “antinational”—approach of teachers of world history. In reply, Jonathan Spence argued for a comprehensive range of language offerings. At Yale, native speakers from the university community are recruited to offer instruction in many less commonly taught languages. In another exchange, Nanette Le Coat suggested that a student applying to college could turn language skill to advantage by citing how it relates to his or her activities and accomplishments. Carol Klee responded to a question about the need for early language learning with reference to flagship programs (www.thelanguageflagship.org) in various languages, and Volker Berghahn called for the maintenance of heritage language proficiencies.

Further discussion at sessions sponsored by the National History Center raised the possibility that programs of professional collaboration between historians and foreign language scholars might build on the center’s project, just completed, to define the role of history in liberal education. Please send further suggestions to tadams@earthlink.net.

—Thomas Adams is an independent scholar who was formerly on the staff of the National Endowment for the Humanities.