The new “F” word in language departments: Foreign.

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed offers insights into the political correctness of how we talk about language programs. If you’re like me, you started your career by taking or teaching “foreign languages” or “modern languages”. These terms are now, apparently, passé. These terms have been thrown out, replaced by designations such as “world languages”.

The article reports that “many educators also do not like the way “foreign” suggests a division of the world into the United States and everyone else” or that ” the word ‘foreign’ could imply different in a negative sense”, arguing that Spanish, in particular, is no longer a language foreign to the United States, but rather an officially un-recognized second language of that country.

What about the term “foreign word”? Does that now get replaced by “international word”? Or “world word”? (Try saying that one ten times fast in front of your class.)

Similarly, English as a Second Language (ESL), English as a Foreign Language (EFL) have also fallen out of favor, being replaced by English as an Additional Language (EAL) and English as and International Language (EIL).

Personally (and I accept the risks of ticking off some colleagues as a I say this), I wonder about all these name changes. If we keep changing perfectly respectable words and phrases in order to be politically correct, then are we not at the mercy of fear mongering and negativity, anyway?

I’m not talking here about heinous and derogatory racial or religious verbal aberrations that belong in the toilet bowl. I am talking about professional nomenclature, used by trained and credentialed teachers, researchers, professors, students and government agencies.

If we keep changing professional terms are we not lowering them to the same status as derogatory slang that refers to race, religion or sexual preference? Those terms are intended to ridicule, insult, defile and debase others. Those terms should most definitely be dropped from professional (and even personal) vernacular, in favour of more respectful and less emotionally-charged terminology.

But as far as I know, professional nomenclature was never intended to be emotionally charged. Its purpose, as with all scientific and professional nomenclature, is intended to be objective and even clinical. It is designed to stand the test of time, be searchable in research works throughout the ages and signify the tradition and pride of a the profession.

How often do we see other disciplines fretting about what they call themselves? Physics, for example. One could argue that the word is archaic, dated and hard to spell. It is! Yet physicists around a proud and vigilant bunch who revel in the ancient Greek tradition from which it hails.

Should the word “Physics” be dropped because it’s hard to spell? (I hear my physicist friends snorting in disgust at the very thought of such a ludicrous proposition.)

Or Mathematics. Though it is sometimes shortened to “Maths” or “Math”, we really haven’t seen great changes to name of the discipline in centuries.

Moving away from the hard sciences, “Philosophy” retains its name and its tradition, as well, as does “Fine Arts”, or even “Education” (which I’m surprised hasn’t been banished in favour of “Learning”… but give it time.)

I agree that words are important and wording is highly important. But I do wonder what happens to our sense of identity and pride as language teaching professionals if, every decade or so, we change the name of our discipline to suit what is politically correct at the time?

I’m not saying that “World Languages” is wrong and “Foreign Languages” is right. I am suggesting that we, as professionals, settle on what to call our discipline and stick with it for a century or two.

We lament about cuts to funding and the marginalization of our programs within the institutions in which we work. At the same time, I suspect that colleagues in other disciplines quietly snicker at us. While we bicker and fret about what to call ourselves, they methodically and strategically move forward, claiming funding and research dollars, unapologetically going by the same name they’ve had for centuries.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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