ITHACA, N.Y.,-- While Harvard lingers cautiously behind, only occasionally lifting one foot out of the time-honored je parle-tu parles-il parle school of elementary modern language instruction, Cornell University has stepped into a national spotlight of curiosity and mixed criticism with a language program aimed at bringing a student to learn a language rather than learn about it.
Harvard's approach to languages has traditionally been literary rather than linguistic. This is reflected in the language requirement, which calls only for a reading knowledge of some foreign tongue. As a result, the Harvard graduate may dazzle an evening cocktail party with his brilliant remarks on Voltaire's sense of irony or Goethe's treatment of Faust, but he will find himself at an utter loss in the Paris Flea Market or at a Munich Beer-Garden.
Cornell, however, operates on the theory that a student cannot appreciate the literature of a foreign language without first having mastered the spoken language and developed the ability to use it easily in practical situations.
Language study has accordingly been divided into two distinct units: the Division of Modern Languages, which carries on elementary and intermediate training in language mechanics, and the various Departments teaching courses in the literature of foreign languages, which handle the cultural aspects of languages that Harvard emphasizes so strongly.
The formal grammatical trappings that so often weigh down language instruction have been shorn away at Cornell. The aim is to teach the student a language not by making him analyze it, but by placing him, as far as possible, in an environment dominated by that language so that he may assimilate it almost unconsciously, much as he did with his native language as a child.
Twelve Modern Languages Offered
The same basic structure applies to all the introductory language courses given. A student who cannot pass the language requirement at entrance must enter the elementary course in one of the twelve modern language (French, Italian, Portugese, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese) offered at the University, though he may be accelerated into the second half of these courses if his past training warrants it.
These courses all carry double credit. They meet eight hours each week, and each student has three different instructors. Small "drill" sessions, limited to ten students each, are held three times a week.
These are undoubtedly the most novel feature of the Cornell language set-up. Each class is led by a native of the country whose language is being taught. Hardly any of these native instructors are professional language teachers. Most of them are graduate students, in any field from Biochemistry to Philosophy, who have come to Cornell on fellowships directly connected with the language program.
The drill sessions include a fairly heavy dose of repetition of simple, everyday foreign phrases and imitation of the pronunciation of the instructor. Much of the homework consists of memorization of conversations which the students will then repeat during class. Work on grammar is done indirectly, for the most part; syntax is learned by the example of the phrases used and repeated.
According to William G. Moulton, professor of German Linguistics, "No English is used, under 'penalty of death'," but it seems that this penalty is frequently commuted during the early stages of the course.
On the three days a week when the drill sessions do not meet, each drill group is combined with another and meets in a "lab" session, under the instruction of either a native or of a bilingual American teacher. Here the material covered in the drills is tamped down, often by means of group or individual repetition following playbacks on tape recording machines.
Finally, two hours a week are spent in "lectures" under senior faculty members. In these lectures, specific phonetic and grammatical difficulties are discussed, and students may ask questions about the structure of the language that might slow up the drill sessions or stump the native instructors.
These three different instructors which the student meets each week prevent one particular accent or idiosyncrasy from becoming ingrained in the student's own formulation of the language. After the first six weeks of the course, moreover, the groups are divided into "fast" and "not-so-fast" and the instructors are shuffled, providing another change in accent.
Instruction in the spoken language and in comprehension continues through the fall term. In the spring the emphasis changes to reading. Council went about its task of attempting a change with some reluctance.