Is being a language teacher dangerous to your health?

March 13, 2012

Do you work in poor, run-down conditions? Or an old building that’s falling apart?

Amelia’s story

Amelia Labbe Sarah Eaton University of CalgaryWhen I started my Master’s degree in Spanish at the University of Calgary, I heard staff and professors complaining about the air quality and run down conditions in Craigie Hall, the building where the modern language departments are housed. I never really thought about it much, since I head my head buried in my books and I was learning to live in a new city and adjust to the pressures of being a young graduate student.

One of the first people to welcome me into the department was Amelia Labbé. A native of Bolivia, Amelia ran the university’s Centro de Tertulia (Spanish Centre). Officially, Amelia’s job was to provide opportunities for conversation with a native speaker. Unofficially, the Centro de Tertulia became a place where students would gather, socialize in Spanish, help one another with their homework, listen to music in Spanish and sometimes even watch telenovelas.  There was only one rule: When you crossed the threshold in to the Centro, it was Spanish only. No English. No French. Solamente español. It was her one rule and she stuck to it.

Amelia also became a mentor and unofficial advisor to many students who sought her council and words of wisdom, even though it was not part of her job. Officially, the university has designated student advisors and anyone who is not a designated advisor is not supposed to offer guidance to students. But that didn’t stop students from asking her what she thought and seeking her advice. Students trusted her. They could tell that she cared deeply about them… In fact, she cared more about the students than she did about regulations or rules. Over the course of her career, she touched the lives of thousands of students who studied Spanish at the University of Calgary, including mine.

Last fall, Amelia fell ill. She blamed it on the building where she worked, which was known to have asbestos in it. On November 8, 2011, Amelia passed away from pulmonary fibrosis. Along with many of my friends and colleagues, I attended the celebration of her life on November 19.

Faculty and staff complaints about poor air quality are blown off

Since then, twenty years of complaints about the state of the building and questions about its air quality have erupted into a full-scale war. I have gone from being a Master’s student to working in the Language Research Centre, where I now have the privilege of being a Research Associate and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, after finishing my Ph.D.

An informal investigation was held a few years ago when it was determined that an extraordinarily high percentage of the faculty and staff had been diagnosed with cancer. Many of them pointed to their physical working conditions as a factor in their illness. Tests were done. Faculty and staff were told that everything was fine. Sadly, the incidence of cancer diagnosis among language faculty continued. Others were diagnosed with asthma and unknown allergies. No one could prove any correlation between the physical environment and the incidence of illness.

Following Amelia’s passing, some faculty members and staff insisted that a full investigation be conducted. Today, the CBC published, “Teacher’s lung disease death prompts U of C building worries: But officials say Craigie Hall air quality not compromised by asbestos“. The story documents reactions to Amelia’s health issues and subsequent passing, and speculations that her physical work environment were the root cause of her death. Amelia’s husband and my colleague and mentor, Dr. Rachel Schmidt, publicly offered commentary to reports.The university released a statement declaring that “air quality and environment are within the acceptable guidelines“.

Language programs: Between a rock and a hard place

In my Ph.D. research I found that it is not uncommon for language programs at large institutions to be marginalized both politically and in terms of their physical placement on a campus.

Here’s an excerpt from my Ph.D. thesis:

Language programs, because they are not necessarily seen as academic in nature, do not always have a prominent place on campus. While it would be logical for ESL programs to be physically positioned in places that are easily accessible by foreign students who struggle with the language, “many … programs are housed in temporary bungalows, in basements, or on the periphery of our campuses” (Stoller, 1997, p. 40).

This assertion is echoed more recently by Quay Connection (2000, p. 14) whose research shows that “Many providers say their facilities are too run down, too small, impermanent, unattractive.” This speaks to the question of the legitimacy of such programs, which is discussed later on. For now it is enough to note that the physical placement of such programs on a campus is one indicator of how they are viewed by administration (Stoller, 1997). Program managers must often advocate for improved space and facilities for their programs. (Eaton, 2009, pp. 66-67).

My thesis dealt specifically with ESL programs. In the case of one of the programs I studied, it had just recently been relocated to the main floor of the building. Previous to that, it was located on the 14th floor of the building. The very odd thing about that particular building was that the 14th floor was accessible only by taking the elevator to the 13th floor and then taking the stairs up one more floor. So, non-native speakers of English were required to navigate a complex procedure in order to get to the program offices. Even native speakers had trouble figuring out how to get to their offices.

Even though the Department of French, Italian and Spanish has been renovated now, the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian languages is still in need of renovations. Both language departments remain in an unattractive and outdated building with an elevator that is often broken down. The building is known to have asbestos.

A jumping off point

It seems that there is some evidence that shows that language programs are located in physical spaces that are far from ideal. In the work I have done with language programs at high schools, colleges and universities, this seems to be a common complaint… but with little to no research to identify whether or not this is indeed a problem in the field of language teaching. My guess is that large scale studies about the physical marginalization of language programs at institutions have never been done. (If you know of any such studies, please leave a comment!)

Language programs should not be relegated to old, run down buildings or pushed into basements. Language program administration and management includes advocating for programs and courses. As faculty and staff, it is our responsibility to advocate for one another, too. Some recommendations to consider:

  1. Have conversations with colleagues about the physical conditions in which you work. Are they adequate? Does your physical space promote health and well-being?
  2. Advocate for an improved location on your campus. Particularly in the case of ESL programs, students need to be able to find your offices.
  3. Engage in conversations and dialogue with faculty committees and administrators.
  4. If you suspect health issues that are due to your physical environment, keep detailed records and write it all down. Without documentation, it is more difficult to make a case for further investigation.
  5. Draw on support from your faculty association or union, if you have one. These bodies exist to protect workers’ rights, including their health.
  6. Take care of yourself. If  you are suffering ill effects and you believe that your work environment may be a contributing factor, do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy. I have colleagues in Craigie Hall who work as much as possible from home, one now works in another building and another brought in her own air filtration machine for her office. None of these is a perfect solution, but they may help. If nothing else, they give the employees a sense of empowerment, which is essential when you’re fighting cancer, or another life-threatening illness.

I’ve now watched a friend and colleague die and an alarming number of other friends have been diagnosed with cancer or asthma. No one knows for sure what the cause is. They’re all pretty convinced that the building where they work is a factor.

How’s the physical space where your language program is located?


Eaton, S.E. (2009). Marketing of Revenue-generating ESL Programs at the University of Calgary: A qualitative study. Thesis. University of Calgary, Canada.

Quay-Connection. (2000). Marketing ACE in Victoria. Annadale (Australia): Adult, Community and Further Education Board, Melbourne (Australia).

Stoller, F. L. (1997). The catalyst for change and innovation. In M. A. Christison & F. L. Stoller (Eds.), A handbook for language program administrators (pp. 33-48). Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center Publishers.

Update on this story: On March 21, I was quoted in the Calgary Herald’s article, “Craigie Hall Asbestos Level Normal: Review“. The article was written after the university released a report stating that everything was fine with the air quality in the building. Still though… it is puzzling why so many staff complain of health concerns?


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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


U.S. School district asks for public input on world language program

November 6, 2011

Andover public schools seek public inputThe Andover Public School board in Massachusetts, U.S.A. has established a World Language Task Force, reports the Andover Townsman. The purpose of the task force is to seek input from the community on what languages they would like to see taught in their schools and why. The task force is comprised of teachers, parents, community members, and administrators. The purpose of the task force is to:

Study the K-12 programming model and trends in world language teaching and learning.

Develop goals and strategies for a K-12 World Language program for inclusion in the Andover Public Schools Strategic Plan.

Produce recommendations relative to which one language will be taught on the elementary school level, which two languages will be taught on the middle school level, and which languages will be taught at Andover High School.

The task force is soliciting input from the public through a public online survey developed by the school board. The survey asks respondents to rank the importance of such factors as cultural competence, writing and testing skills in a first language and preparing students for global society. It also asks for input on what languages the board should offer, including popular languages such as Spanish and Chinese, as well as less popular languages such as Hmong, Khmer and Creolo Haitian.

I believe that this is a commendable initiative for a variety of reasons:

  1. Generating dialogue between school boards and the community promotes a culture of open communication. It gives a voice to parents, grandparents and even students about that is important to them. It gives a voice to the community.
  2. In addition to giving a voice to the community, it also seeks to uncover what is important to the community, digging deeper into the values, beliefs and opinions of those who live in the local area. Then, it would assume, the task force would consider these values as part of its criteria when it comes to making its decisions.
  3. It downplays the traditional authoritarian nature of school boards. Instead of propagating the ideas that “school boards know best”, it levels the playing field (at least in terms of the optics) and sends the message that “We’re here to serve you, not dictate to you.” This is a strategy that the Calgary Board of Education would have done well to employ when it arbitrarily decided to cut French programs without engaging the community in any dialogue about it.
  4. It generates community involvement and interest in language programs at the local schools. At a time when cutbacks to language programs, particularly in the United States, are mercilessly targeting world language programs, initiatives such as this will draw importance to language programs. After people have contributed to the discussion and have had some say into the decision-making process they are emotionally and psychologically invested in the outcome and are more likely to support foreign and world language programs in general.

One comment posted on the Andover news article pointed out that the survey is an imperfect tool, since respondents can answer as many times as they like, potentially skewing the results. This is relatively easy to overcome, depending on which survey tool is used. Nevertheless, the concept is brilliant. Opening up discussions about education and in particular, language learning, to the public and ultimately involving the community in the decision making process is innovative, respectful of the community and downright brilliant.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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

Enrollment in Calgary French classes drops by over 10,000 students

October 20, 2011

Today the Calgary Herald reported that 10,517 fewer students are studying French in our city this year. This came after the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) decided to make French an optional subject. (I blogged about it on April 24 of this year.)

As a result, 24 school principals in Calgary decided to cut French from their school’s programs. That meant that even if children at those schools wanted to study French, they could not. There were simply no French classes offered.

As a result, there was a 30% drop in enrollments and the school board is being critiqued by parents, researchers and ordinary citizens for not allowing our city’s children to study our country’s other official language.

What did they think would happen?


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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

Stroke robs man of multilingual abilities

August 10, 2011

Here’s an interesting (and heart wrenching) article about a multilingual Edmonton man who lost all of his languages after a stroke. In the Globe and Mail article, Abdul Kamal reports that, “In the aftermath of the stroke, I lost all the languages I knew – English, French, German, Urdu and Bengali. I could neither read and write nor speak and comprehend.”

Kamal is a retired professor of physics at the University of Alberta who enjoyed physics, writing, travelling, sports, theatre before his stroke, but has been unable to take part in his favorite activities.

Determined to get his speech back, he reports, “Undaunted, I rounded up my own children’s books along with picture and alphabet cards and launched an uphill battle against my formidable foe – aphasia. David drove me to the Glenrose Hospital twice a week to learn English under the tutelage of a speech pathologist.” That was ten years ago, he states. From there, he progressed from working with a speech pathologist to group language learning sessions for aphasics (people who have lost their speech due to a stroke), and working with graduate students at the University of Alberta who were working with aphasics as part of their research and academic training.

Now, at age 75, Kamal offers a message of hope to others who have lost their speech due to a stroke:

After I had the stroke, a speech pathologist told me that I would show improvements in all my mental faculties over the following year and a half. However, at 75, I’m still learning. My speech, comprehension of spoken language and syntax are still improving, albeit slowly. The message is that if you challenge the brain, it will respond. Although at a certain age our memory bank starts to deplete, I’m sanguine about the future.

Kamal’s story reminds us to value the abilities we have to speak one, two or more languages. And when self-doubt or feelings of inadequacies fill us that we are not doing enough, not good enough or not as fluent or as perfect as we would like to be, we are reminded to celebrate the abilities that we have today and commit to the lifelong process of learning, no matter where we may fall on the continuum of proficiency.

Thank you, professor Kamal, for the inspiration.

Read the whole article.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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

My Calgary Includes Both Official Languages in Schools

April 27, 2011

School girl on stairsI was astounded when I saw the headline tweet from the Calgary Herald: “French classes no longer mandatory in Calgary schools“. I read the article and astonishment turned to dismay.

It used to be that in Calgary, children in grades four to six had to learn French, Canada’s other official language. It seems that the Calgary Board of Education has now made it the choice of each individual school whether or not they choose to teach French to their students. The school may make its decision based on demand and interest. This decision comes just days after another announcement that the school board will cut hundreds of teaching jobs this year.

Is this a coincidence? I hardly think so.

While there is ample research that demonstrates the benefits of language learning on overall cognitive development, including math and problem solving skills, our local public school board has effectively said “if there’s no demand, there’s no reason to have these classes.” Just because I personally had no desire to take math in school, that didn’t make it optional.

Canada is a bilingual country. While many of us may never achieve full bilingual fluency, leaving cultural and linguistic exposure up to “school choice” and “student choice” won’t help us build a twenty-first century global citizenry. Nor will it help those children later in life if they ever want a job with the federal government. A job with the feds requires functional fluency… and our students won’t even get exposure to our country’s other official language.

The idea of making language learning choice-driven is akin to making it market driven. I’m all for marketing of language programs and promoting second language learning. I literally did a PhD thesis on marketing of language programs. In fact, I’m not even a huge proponent of mandatory language learning.

If it was really about “choice” or “market demand”, the board could have hired a market research firm to determine what classes would be among students’ first choice… Would the sciences be among most students’ favorites? Or phys ed? The answer is… no one knows. Because no one in Calgary has actually done any research to find out what students want now… and what skills they will need for their jobs later in life.

But this isn’t really about market demand or choice is it? This is about finding ways to cut programs, cut costs, cut jobs. It’s about balancing a budget in the short term… and doing it slyly and indirectly by making mandatory classes optional. No one’s thinking about making sciences optional here… just our country’s other official language.

And it’s gob-smackingly short sighted.

We don’t ask children if they’d like the choice to study math or English or science when they’re in grades four to six. It’s part of our job as responsible adults, parents and community leaders to provide them opportunities for learning that will serve as the foundation for more learning into the high school years… and later as the foundation for skills that will get them jobs and provide them with critical thinking skills as they then become the guardians of the next generation. It’s our job to get them excited about learning, keep their minds open and their motivation levels soaring so they engage in learning in new and innovative ways.

In Calgary, we seem to have forgotten that. Mon dieu…. Père, pardonne-leur car ils ne savent pas ce qu’ils font.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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

Spanish, French, German and ASL: Most Popular Languages Taught in US

December 8, 2010

Dan Berrett’s article, “Getting Their Babel On” (Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 8, 2010) shares the results of a study conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA) in terms of university students in the US studying foreign languages. Here are the highlights:

  • The rate at which students took foreign language courses in 2009 remained constant, compared to three years prior.
  • The number of enrollments in language courses grew from 1.57 million in 2006 to 1.68 million in 2009, or 6.6 percent. However, the total number of enrollments in undergraduate courses as a whole also increased. In simple terms this means that language courses account for 8.6 of every 100 course enrollments in post-secondary institutions. That number has remained the same since 2006.
  • Of every 100 undergraduate degrees earned, 1.16 of them are in foreign languages.
  • 70 % of undergrad degrees in foreign languages are earned by women.
  • The most popular languages to study (aside from English, which is not considered a “foreign” language in the US) are Spanish, French, German, and American Sign Language, in that order.
  • American universities teach a total of 232 different languages.
  • Arabic boasted the highest increases in enrollments last year, with a 46% increase over the three previous years.
  • Graduate program enrollments in languages have dropped by 6.7 percent since 2006.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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

Is for-profit education deceitful? Have we no standards?

August 13, 2010

Students at Westwood College in the United States have just filed a law suit against the for-profit college in both Colorado and California, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Both Westwood College, which has 17 campuses, and its affiliate, Redstone College are accused of deceiving and lying to students. The Chronicle reports that the claim against the institutions is that the college follows this formula, “Recruit those with the greatest financial need and enroll them in high-cost institutions to maximize the amount of federal funding.” The college is denying the allegations.

There is a raging debate going on about for-profit versus non-profit education. Which is better? Which is more scrupulous? Which is more trustworthy?

These are tough questions.

In Canada, an interesting and very cool thing happened a few years ago. In the languages field, we have had standards organizations for decades. For most of that time, public institutions had one organization (CLC) and private language schools had another (CAPLS). Over the years, individuals from both of these organizations began attending the same trade fairs, the same agent workshops and the same conferences. Friendships were forged. Conversations began. And understanding grew on both sides about the purpose, ethics and motivations of those who worked in the “other” sector. In 2008, representatives from both organizations came together to form Languages Canada and a new professional organization for language learning in Canada was born. This new organization represents schools teaching both official languages, English and French, and includes member institutions from both the public and for-profit sectors.

This new organization quickly became “the” professional language organization in Canada. Why?

One word: Standards.

Prospective members must not only apply, they must undergo a rigorous application process that includes an in-depth school inspection and evaluation. Only schools deemed to meet the relentless standards of the organization are accepted as members. Members are monitored to ensure that they continue to meet the standards established by the organization.

I don’t know what will happen with the case of Westwood and Redstone Colleges. I do know that students need to be kept at the heart of our work, while professional standards guide us along that path.

Students don’t feed the bottom line. They are the bottom line. Students’ potential, capacity to grow, learn, get jobs that allow them to support themselves and live meaningful lives, and in turn, pass their knowledge and wisdom on to the generations to know, is the reason education exists at all.

As educators and administrators, we are obliged to keep the standards for our profession high and demand excellence not only of our students but of our selves and our institutions.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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

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