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Who Should Study a Foreign Language? The Myth of Elitism



Abstract  Sometimes in the history of foreign language teaching, diverse influences beyond the profession's immediate control have shaped the nature and scope of the discipline, including the United States position in world affairs and expenditure of government funds. However, in this paper, a myth is explored that has tended to limit enrollments in foreign language classes and that is within our power to alter: the popular image of foreign language study as being primarily for the academically talented, high I.Q., college-bound student. It is generally assumed that the long-held connection between foreign languages and the nineteenth century curriculum theory of mental discipline has affected the type of students encouraged to take a foreign language. However, a study of historical documents shows that quite contrary to this commonly held belief, mental discipline as a motive for language study and elitism do not go hand-in-hand. The purpose of this paper is to clarify the origins of the elitist myth and to suggest how contemporary versions of a mental discipline case can support an open-door rather than an elitist policy toward the study of a foreign language. Strategies are offered to counter an excessive emphasis on the “basics,” a current trend which could undermine the building of a cognitive case for foreign languages in the general curriculum.

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