Languages: Sine Qua Non for Globalizing Historiography

Jan 03, 2009

GHI-sponsored panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), New York

At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association held in New York January 02 - 05, 2009, a round-table session was devoted to the importance of languages for the study and teaching of history. It was hoped that this AHA session would stimulate further professional activity leading to more extensive cooperation between language teachers and historians, drawing on the experience of the round-table participants and members of the audience.

Time:  9:30-11:30 A.M. Saturday, January 3, 2009.

Co-Sponsors: GHI, Conference Group for Central European History, World History Association

Moderator: Thomas M. Adams, Independent Scholar (History)

Panelists: Volker Berghahn, Columbia University (History), Carol Klee, University of Minnesota (Spanish), Alida Metcalf (History), Nanette Le Coat (French), Jonathan Spence (History)


Volker Berghahn is a historian of Germany who specializes in German-American relations.  His numerous publications on German and European history include a survey that appeared in 2006 on Europe in the Era of Two World Wars.   His teaching experience includes work with American undergraduate students at the Free University of Berlin, in a program conducted entirely in German.

Carol Klee, a plenary speaker at the October 2008 conference on Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) at the University of North Carolina--is Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Minnesota.  She is an expert on Quechua and on the contact of Spanish with other languages.  She has also published extensively and served as a national consultant on curriculum and pedagogy.  In charge of Spanish language instruction at the University for many years,  Klee has played a leading role in the LAC program there, and she currently directs the National Resource Center on Western European Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Alida Metcalf teaches the history of Brazil at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and has co-directed a thriving LAC program there with her colleague Nanette Le Coat in the French Department.  Metcalf has won prizes for her writings on Brazil, writings that include a recent study on Go-Betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500-1600, and an earlier study entitled Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil.

Nanette Le Coat teaches French language and literature at Trinity University, and has co-directed the LAC program there with historian Alida Metcalf.  Her research interests relate to the intersection of history and literature from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries.  She has written about nineteenth-century perspectives on Mme du Châtelet and about the institutionalization of history at the French teacher training institution, the École Normale.

Jonathan Spence is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale, where he has taught since 1965.  His writings on Chinese history, known to a large audience, include The Death of Woman Wang;  The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds, and a biography of Mao Zedong.  His contributions to the field have won him wide recognition, including a MacArthur fellowship.  He has lectured and conducted research at Chinese universities, and served as President of the American Historical Association for the year ending in January 2005.

For information on the CLAC conference. For the MLA statement, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.

If you would like an e-mail copy of this handout please contact Thomas M. Adams.


Event Report

Moderator Thomas M. Adams cited a recommendation from the "White Paper on the Role of the History Major in Liberal Education" just 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, an expert on German-American relations, offered the cautionary tale of a professor in the mid-1980s whose use of citations was seriously discredited in a case that ultimately revealed the researcher’s deficient knowledge of the German language. On the teaching side, Berghahn 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 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.

An 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 thirty to forty 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: Manchu, Arabic, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, for example.

High school teacher Amy Lindquist, 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 "anti-national" - 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 ( 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  via e-mail to Thomas M. Adams

Thomas M. Adams (Washington DC)