Blog Post

I Haz Language: A Response to the MLA’s Latest “Statement”

(This post is cross posted on my website: Rhetorical Rumination)

"All learning that is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind." --Plato

Recently, the Modern Language Association (MLA) Executive Council issued the following statement:

The MLA urges doctoral programs in English to require all PhD candidates to demonstrate, at either the admission or the exit point, advanced competence in at least one language other than English. It also urges doctoral programs to offer funding and support to students who study additional languages beyond this requirement.

Those who pursue a PhD in English are engaged in deep study of a language and its literary and cultural expressions. Most likely they will teach works in translation during their career. Knowledge of several languages and the process of language learning offer more than research tools enabling students to read primary and secondary materials in their original form. They promote consciousness of and sensitivity to both the multilingual contexts in which anglophone literatures are written and the work of translation in which contemporary writers and readers engage on a daily basis. Proficiency in more than one language promotes the cultural literacy essential to teaching in the global university of the future.

At first glance, this statement seems worthwhile and worthy of support, but then I glanced at it again, and then, I glanced at it one more time. It has become abundantly clear that the Modern Language Association is an entity lost on the steppes of the digital landscape clinging to the dying edifice of a fractured and ugly past.

Don’t get me wrong: I think language study is a wonderful thing. English is my native language, but I know French, though I hardly have time to regularly practice it. I know a little German and Italian too, and I am adept at some computer languages as well, and you know what? I learned all of them because I wanted to learn them. I’m still learning, and I will continue learning the intricacies and huge gapping maws of these languages when I eventually shuffle off my mortal coil.

However, what the Modern Language Association fails to realize (and probably always will) is that a nine-year PhD in English without advanced language study is unacceptable. So, it is irresponsible and reckless for a scholarly organization to advocate for more debt just so a student at the beginning of their career will be able to speak “passable” French that would make a French infant cringe and laugh.

Is language learning a worthy endeavor? Absolutely! Yes! But, it isn’t required for every English PhD student because not every English PhD student will need to call on a different language to do his or her work. The Modern Language Association, which is far from modern in the contemporary sense of the word, has once again reminded its membership and the world that it lives in the past.

Yet, in the spirit of support (because I am a MLA member, though I really don’t know why since they almost despise rhetoric and composition scholars), I would like to applaud the organization for their statement. I applaud them because they have left their statement both vague and specific in that they believe every English PhD student should spend more time learning a language they’ll probably never use while leaving the possibility of said language open.

I’m glad the Modern Language Association has finally decided to support language learning in such vague terms. This way, PhD students can list “Txtspeak” on their CVs and provide justification for such an addition: “The MLA supports it!” (As if that actually carries any weight, but let’s pretend it does.)

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this laughable and transitory attempt at authority is that there are so many other things the so-called Executive Council could be working on (I would make a list, but I’m sure others can come up with better ones than me—and have). Yet, they feel the need to push out a short statement with a huge sentence fragment in the middle of it.

The argument presented in the statement is vapid and yawn-worthy. You do not need to know another language to appreciate the cultural artifacts of the area from which the language arose anymore than you need to understand that a moon pie is made with graham crackers to appreciate its deliciousness. No PhD student in any discipline makes it through his or her program without encountering an appreciation of some type of cultural literacy, regardless if they label that literacy as “cultural.” It’s haphazard to assume such things, and it speaks to the Modern Language Association’s tremendous belief that they still matter.

My advice to members of the Modern Language Association would be to advocate for more study of the topics relevant to an individual’s path toward degree completion. In addition, I think the topic of language learning should be left between the PhD student and his or her advisor. The student and advisor know what’s needed to graduate in a reasonable amount of time (which should be no more than five years), and the advisor knows what his or her field looks like and expects.

If you’re a PhD student in any discipline, you have a pretty good idea of what you need to know in order to graduate on time, conduct research in your field, and achieve whatever it is you wish to achieve. There is no need for an organization, like the Modern Language Association, to throw up barriers and butt its way into your studies.

It’s not their studies; it’s your studies. Period.

If I take anything away from the Modern Language Association’s statement it is this: I am proficient in Txtspeak, and I can now list it on my CV. Huzzah!

4 realz, yo.

L8tr, bra.


Photos by Flickr users stpauliesgirl (adapted by author) and the author, respectively.  // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY




Thanks for the update, Nancy! 



Hi Trent, 

Cathy Davidson wrote a blog this morning,, that responds to your piece here.