Wednesday, May 17, 2006


One Year of a Language

What’s the point, really, of requiring one year of a foreign language in college?

The key word in that sentence is ‘requiring.’ I’m not asking what’s the point of learning a foreign language, or even of taking just one year. I’m asking what’s the point of requiring one year. Requiring, as in, you can’t take other things you actually want to take because you have to make room for this.*

One year of a language, if you only take it because you have to, amounts to squat. It’s certainly not enough to actually use. I took one year of (nameless language) in college, crashed and burned, and carried the scar on my GPA until graduation. I remember maybe a dozen words of it. The experience was loathsome, fruitless, and damaging. My only solace has been to watch that country twist in the wind ever since. My theory as to its sustained misery: it’s because of that miserable excuse for a language.

Why do we inflict this on innocent students?

Honestly, why do we let students wait until college before starting a foreign language? Every study I’ve seen indicates that the best ages for language acquisition are before puberty. I say, give ‘em Spanish from preschool on. (In Canada, French.) Add something else (French? Japanese? Urdu?) in high school. But to require a full year in college achieves…what?

And why are we giving college credit for a course that teaches the same material that the better school districts teach in the seventh grade, if not earlier? Is there any other discipline for which that’s true?

(And don’t hit me with the ‘remediation’ argument. Remedial courses don’t count towards graduation. First-year language courses do.)

I know that the first exposure to a foreign language can shed some light on grammar, if only by contrast. (I first learned what an ‘infinitive’ was in my high school French class.) And yes, there’s some exposure to ‘diversity,’ although I remember spending a lot more time conjugating verbs than learning about how people lived. But if you want exposure to diversity, require sociology. There are better ways to achieve these ancillary goods, and none of them involves flashcards.

Reality being what it is, I’m willing to offer (and grant graduation credit for) introductory foreign language courses at the college level. After all, there are limits to what high schools can and will do. But I’m still unpersuaded that we should go from ‘offering’ to ‘requiring.’

Your thoughts?

*I’m consistently astonished at how many otherwise-intelligent people will argue for a requirement on the grounds that a given class is good. I assume it is; that’s irrelevant. A requirement squeezes out something else. To me, a compelling argument for a requirement would have to address why a given mandated class is better than any other alternative. Address the opportunity cost.

The admissions requirements at my current institution require three years of a language in high school, and the graduation requirements require proficiency at an "intermediate" level. Many students here end up taking TWO years of a language to meet that requirement. (Others, who went to better high schools, can test out based on their high school language classes.)

Although I hated having to take a language, I can see a requirement for it as part of a liberal arts experience (of the Ivy-covered, learning for knowledge's sake variety as practiced at elite institutions).

At my previous employer the students were required to take a certain number of courses from the "people and cultures" category, and languages were one way to fulfill this requirement.
Learning a language can teach some of the same skills as philosophical formal logic. Learning the sequential thinking skills and abstract reasoning can help them in other areas.
I think there's more to a requirement than just saying "you have to take this class." It also communicates that this field of study is important to the college and is something that is worth knowing. Liberal arts majors are required to take math classes despite having learned 12 years of math up to that point (let's assume for the sake of argument that they actually have learned that much, as that's what the requirement presupposes; whether or not that's accurate is a wholly separable question). Why? Because math skills are important, and while they may never need to integrate a function, the reasoning skills that math develops are appplicable in any field.

For foreign languages, the requirement is the college's way of saying that this too is something that we value, that we think our graduates should have, and that is important to being a (liberal arts bias showing here) well rounded person. Yes, a single year of a foreign language won't make anyone fluent; however, it does provide encouragement that this is something valuable. And it actually does make a difference--many of my friends in undergrad decided to continue studying languages because they were required to take the first year and found that they really enjoyed it, or they started to see how many job offerings requested bilingual applicants, etc. So while a year itself may not be that valuable, I think requiring it does say something about the importance of language from the university's perspective.

Finally, re: college credit for 7th grade material:
I'm not sure that giving college credit for lower-level language classes is the same as giving it for, say, 7th grade American history. First, there is little overlap between languages (credit-wise; I make no claims about whether knowing e.g. Latin makes French easier to pick up)--if you took four years of Spanish in high school, you're still learning new material in German 101 and it seems like you should get credit for that.
Count me as one person who hates this requirement, quite possibly because I've been burned by it. In high school, I took 1 year of lesser taught language before it was scraped from the program. Because there were rumors that it might return, I waited out my sophmore and junior year. My senior year, I took another year of a seperate language. Because it was not 2 consecutive years of a language, when I was accepted into neighboring state's top R1 state university (with a full, presidential scholarship), it was on the condition that I take some absurd amount of additional language courses.

Lucky for me, it was the mid 90's and the university's computer system sucked and was changing almost yearly. Somehow the fact that I owed multiple years of language disappeared from my record after 1 semseter, and I promptly didn't take the remaining classes (because I am terrible at languages and wasn't about to see my perfect gpa take repeated hits from the language requirement). Thank goodness no one noticed before I graduated.

While I agree that language provides another method to learn abstract skills, it rubs me the wrong way to think that universities require it to the extent that they do. If it is really that important, start seriously teaching language in elementary school when most people can pick it up.
I assume that most, if not all, four-year colleges have some sort of language requirement. Therefore, if your community college aims to prepare students for transfer to four-year colleges, it makes sense to require foreign language courses.

However, your question seems to be not whether a language requirement makes good business sense for a cc, but whether it should be regarded as an essential part of a liberal arts education. I don't think it should. Highly desirable, sure. Essential, no. In my experience, the only people who truly learn a language are those who spend time immersed in it...and opportunities for immersion are rare, especially at the cc level.

Then again, I'm probably not the best person to weigh in on this. My college waived the language requirement in my case because 1) my hearing impairment would have made it unduly difficult for me to acquire a spoken language, and 2) I was already fluent in American Sign Language in addition to English.
This is an excellent topic, DD, one that comes up here at Mediocre U., too.

First, we must acknowledge that two semesters of a language will not make anyone fluent. The FL folks will be the first to admit that. So if fluency is impossible, why bother?

As several have noted, the requirement represents a value of certain types of univeraity educations, whether that value is intrinsic to a liberal education or no longer ancillary to a business education.

To institutions, however, an FL requirement should represent a curricular value. Why should undergrads take a language sequence that won't make them fluent? In a nutshell: Sapir-Whorf, early Chomsky (the good bits, when he was actually a linguist), Derrida, Lacan, etc. etc. etc.

Learning a language should make students self-aware of the relationship between their thoughts and their language, the kind of thoughts thay may be capable of expressing due to their language, how others may view their use of language, and how difficulties in communicating or studying other cultures are far more complex than finding the right dictionary.

A year of FL won't do the job completely, like any core requirement, but it's a first step, an exposure, and it represents a curricular value of certain types of institutions.

And besides...does the world really need more monoglot Americans in the next generation? For those who say "Yes," there are institutions for you.
Personally, my biggest complaint about the current system is that when a class is required, it's inevitably full of people who don't want to be there. This is a problem in all classes, but it's especially so in language classes because they depend on students being able to practice speaking to each other. It slows the class down to an interminable crawl. The kids who don't want to be there hate it; the ones who are trying to learn hate it; I'm guessing the professors aren't very fond, either.

No matter what you think the purpose of FL is, the current system (at my u, anyway) is pretty ineffective. My two suggestions: education from elementary onward, and more subtitled films. I don't care if we have to dub Hollywood into French and then subtitle it; every non-native English speaker I've met cites dubbed media as the key to their fluency.

Dubbed Saved by the Bell has been, quite possible, the greatest language tool ever devised.
Taking a foreign language was immensely helpful in learning to understand the structure of my own, which is a strong argument in favor of requiring it.
I've finally solved the mystery of why the world hates America -- dubbed Screech! It all makes sense now...

The 'symbolism' argument strikes me as infinitely malleable. Participation in a democracy is important, so we should require American Government. Good communication skills are important, so we should require Interpersonal Communication. Money matters are obviously crucial, so we should require Economics or Accounting. There's potentially no end to it. Given a limited number of credits to work with, any new requirement necessarily comes at the expense of other things.

The 'mental calisthenics' argument is similarly porous. Yes, a language can sharpen logic skills. So can a logic course, or a math course, or a good philosophy course. It's a short distance from that to something like a 'character building' argument -- take something hard because it's hard, so you can learn to suffer like a Man. I'd like to think we can do better than that.

mcb's point is crucial. A requirement becomes less rewarding precisely because it's required.
American schools ought to have a second language starting at grade school. I didn't start taking languages until university and it really hurt me (not grade-wise, I did well!) in terms of my professional field. I can now read German, Latin, French and Italian but my verbal proficiency lags far behind.

My undergraduate institution required a year and a half or two years (depending on your program) of a second language chosen from a list of three (again, depending on your program). It's defended on the grounds that you really ought to be able to read the literature in your field, even if it's not in English. I'd agree with that defense as long as the courses are structured more to that end than to a generic culture/conversational end which most "X Language for non-majors" courses seem to be!

That said, some of my students, here in Canada, are remarkably resistant to being asked to read an article in French. *sigh*
My state appears to require three semesters of foreign language instruction and count me among the undergrads who hate this requirement. My transfer U already requires an inordinate amount of general ed requirements and this one feels particularly onerous.

Many people learn grammar from language instruction but wouldn't that be better addressed with an English grammar course? My work in the writing center certainly would support the need for greater grammar knowledge.

Finally, why couldn't students be required to take "people and cultures" course as Rudbekia Hirta's previous employer allowed?

Great post today, DD, and something that has been on my mind for quite some time.
I've got to say that while I understand Dean Dad's point (limited # of "slots" for required courses, the fact that required courses inhibit students' ability to take courses that they "want" to take) that this kind of discussion bothers me because it seems that we only question the value of liberal arts/humanities type courses and never question the value of other courses that are required. It seems to me that the only solution to the problem that Dean Dad notes would be to do away with all requirements altogether. Otherwise, what we are talking about is showing what we value through what we require, and it is in no way apparent to me that an intro to psych or soc course or college algebra or a chemistry class with a lab is more valuable (and thus "worth" being required) than a year of a foreign language. I can tell you that I remember a heck of a lot more from my one semester of Latin in college (I'd taken it all through high school so only did one semester in college) than I do about differential equations or about the earth's crust from that geology class I had to take.
It seems that the post that you are really wanting feedback on (or at least the post that the commentors are wanting to address) is: should a CC have to worry about Liberal Arts requirements?

app crit and inside the phil. factory both, here and elsewhere, argue for the liberal arts snob approach where the lesser minds will be sifted and molded into righteous thinking machines.

Others are taking up the value of learning only a smattering of a discipline to both the learner (logic abilities)and to the learner's GPA.

Techniques of language acquisition aside (as I don't see that as the core idea being discussed here), do CC kids need this kind of pressure/exposure?

I would say no. For your CC kids, eliminate the requirement. If you are really worried about the quality of mind, then institute a liberal arts class that is a full year of exposure to the arts (fine and theory), philosophy (logic, reason, etc.) et. al. from the liberal arts world. Make them watch a Fellini or whatever.

Kill the language requirement if transfers can work around it. Don't hobble the transfer kids by not allowing them into the college of their choice, but don't burden them with requirements for transfers they will not be making.
"..that this kind of discussion bothers me because it seems that we only question the value of liberal arts/humanities type courses and never question the value of other courses that are required."

Well, at my school there are few required courses that aren't "arts/humanities type courses", so naturally when it comes to discussing the core, we discuss those classes that make up its bulk. We have to take 4 arts and humanities cores, one "social sciences cores" (although it offers options that are very humanities-based), one quantitative reasoning, and one science. The QR and the science cores are utter jokes in comparison to the other cores, which are challenging even for majors.

Is my alma mater significantly different from others? Are there schools where there are as many social science and science requirements as humanities and arts?
I'm with you, DD. One of the minor reasons I went to Famous Engineering School was that they didn't have a foreign language requirement for graduation (though they had a robust department). The core was 2 semesters each of calculus and physics, 1 of another science, and 8 semesters of humanities (foreign language could count for that one).

To answer your question, the reason foreign language is required is to provide employment to foreign language teachers. If not for the requirement, enrollments would fall so low that it might be hard to even keep the language programs.

I'm not suggesting that students shouldn't study foreign languages, far from it. But I agree that making it a requirement is inappropriate.
to the anonymous commenter asking about requirements at other schools:

When I attended Dartmouth (class of 1995), the distributive requirements were evenly spread among the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. You needed four from each category.

At my current job I teach one of the joke QR courses. I bet Dean Dad has something to say about how QR courses -- even the joky ones that we created in hopes that the students will pass -- affect retention.
Very interesting post. I'll just note that I am a graduate student in literature of a foreign language that currently teaches the final course of the language sequence required for graduation in my language. While the usefulness of having literature grads teaching langauge is another issue, I would argue that while it would be wonderful if we could get our students learning multiple languages from elementary school, it just doesn't happen. Even in programs that have language, there are so many different topics that need to be covered that the foreign language doesn't get adequately covered.

I've had a variety of students, some having come to our 4-year through the cc system. While a lot of the students I have did not start from nothing in the language, I really feel that the teacher makes the difference in a foreign language classroom. Even though my students want to pass more than anything and might not have any interest in further study of language, most have commented in person or evaluation that the dynamic presentation of material that places language in a context helps them to learn as well as motivates some of them to continue study of the langauge/literature/culture. There will always be students who complain about the requirements that hurt their grade - I still complain about Chemistry with the pre-meds! Despite my obvious interest in maintaining the language requirement, I'm not sure I would require it in a CC. Liberal arts, definitely. Really, any 4-year education. However, the purpose of any particular CC and the routes that the graduates take after graduation would dictate the usefulness of this requirement. If the students are heading to 4-years, then I say keep it. It will help them immensely when they arrive in 4-year land.

Re: language relationships - depending on the language group and a student's proficiency in a second language, a third or fourth can be either much easier or much more difficult. With Spanish as a second language, I found Arabic to be incredibly difficult but Portuguese to be quite easy.

Re: University requirements. As an undergraduate I had to take 3 related courses each in 4 areas - natural science, social science, language or art, texts and history - in addition to QA and cultural diversity requirements. Grouping the requirements together made my education much more coherent than picking random classes to fulfill requirements.

Sorry for such a long post!

-- a Graduation Gatekeeper
At my university, exit interviews with graduating seniors show a high level of satisfaction with their foreign language courses.

Part of the satisfaction seems to come from taking them in the first or second year, in small (for us) classes, which gave them an opportunity to actually have meaningful contact with a faculty member.

That experience stands out from the 100+ student classes they mostly take in their first two years at regional state universities such as mine (and probably at most R1 state universities).

Part of the satisfaction seems to come from realizing what others above have said about how language works, and so being better able to use their primary language. I'm one of those who thinks students learn a LOT by studying a second language at the college level.

In an ideal world, they'd start in early grammar school; but since it's not part of "no child left behind," it's even less likely to happen now than ever.
If it applies to the major, say history or comparative lit, I can see it being useful. But unless the language is going to be actively used, it really is just a Jobs program for language majors. My daughter, majoring in kineseology and dance, is taking American Sign Language, which seems like a good fit. But my son, who's a radio/Tv/film major is stuck trying to decide whether to take Spanish which is useful in the Southwest US, or Italian, which is useful in Italy where he would like to travel.
I think two reasons.

One: Staffing, frankly. If one is going to have language instruction *at all*, one has to require it, because there simply aren't enough majors to sustain a department otherwise. Sad, but true.

Two: No, one year of language is not going to create fluency. OTOH, one year of language instruction can do a surprising lot: I've had one year of college French and, along with a summer "French for reading" course, my French, while far from fluent, is in fact reasonably passable for both tourism and reading. More importantly, I think, while *one* year of a language isn't necessary so great, the fact is that very few students want to take language courses. But in fact, quite apart from the benefits of one year of a foreign language, *requiring* these courses may very well encourage students to take a second year, or that summer "for reading" course, or whatever--not to major, but to obtain decent speaking skills. A lot of students won't; a lot of students see "requirements" as something to be slogged through with as little thought as possible. But a not insigificant number of students take "required" courses and discover things they want to know more about. Second language acquisition is certainly worth encouraging in an institution of higher ed. We may not be able to make the students drink deep from the Elysian springs, but we can at least lead them to the water.
Agree 100% -- foreign language should not be required, especially at cc level. Instead, it can be offered as an elective. Many students (speaking for my students, at least) don't even use proper English! Also, most high schools do offer at least one foreign language.
Bitch PhD: "We may not be able to make the students drink deep from the Elysian springs, but we can at least lead them to the water."

PPP: [Just to butcher the phrase] You can lead students to knowledge, but you can't make them think.
Every once and a while, Dean Dad, you write a post that I find truly misguided. Sometimes it's about unions, other times it's about staffing, and now, here's one about foreign languages.

Most general (i.e., non-purely engineering or related technical fields) universities require some degree of foreign language competency (usually called "proficiency") for graduation. It fits with the idea of the liberal arts, which are only in the US conceivably based in monolingualism, and then, only to the detriment of the graduates we produce and of our public discourse. Like a basic knowledge of math and English, knowing a little bit of a FL is simply a value of the liberal arts education our system is based upon, and that's how it's approached: if you can test out of basic math, English comp., or FL, that's fine at most schools. If not, tough--do the work and work toward becoming a global citizen with basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Why not have two tracks at your CC, one for 4-year college/university bound students that requires FL (like the work with the CAD you often use as an example, it's a requirement of the next stage of training for BA/BS-seeking students) and one that allows it but does not require it of non-BA/BS-seeking students?

As another anonymous poster mentioned above, it really does come down to the teacher and the curriculum. One year of FL teaching at the college level with adult students is a far cry from one year of work with 7th graders. If it's not, you need new teachers. FL teaching should be (and now usually is) very interactive and based in real communication--one year is not enough to be fluent, but often times a major isn't either.* But it should be enough for a student to accomplish a lot in the FL in a real world setting--ordering a meal, buying tickets and clothes, expressing basic opinions, answering basic questions (even when posed by the authorities), and understanding what others say (when accompanied by other culturally-based skills) to the point of beginning a discussion and perhaps even a friendship, where real learning can begin. Again, if the first-year FL courses where you are are not accomplishing these goals, there's something wrong with your teachers or the curriculum in which they are working, not with FL instruction more generally.

*A "FL" major, by the way, does not have fluency in the language as its primary goal--"FL" departments are usually literature and lingustics folks who teach language as a service course for the college. Don't you think they might prefer to teach Proust instead of "je mange, tu manges, il mange"?
Wow. I'm surprised to see you denigrate a single year of foreign language at community college. Knowing no Spanish, I took three quarters of Spanish at my local community college. All three courses were five hours a week. Part of the final exam for the third class was to have a five-minute conversation in Spanish with another student; the two students would know that the topic would be one of two, so we could prepare, but the professor could intervene at any time, so the conversation couldn't be rote.

By the time I finished up the class, I could read a newspaper or a novel in Spanish, write a simple letter in Spanish, order in a restaurant, or have a simple conversation with a Spanish speaker. The class was by no means worthless; in fact it was fantastic.

Maybe you should make your foreign language classes better instead of dissing them.
Because it is the language of my heritage, and it was spoken by my Grandparents in the home, and used in churches around here until the 1950s, I had a driving desire to learn the German language starting when I was about 9 years old.

Nearly everybody in the area where I grew up also claimed German ancestry, but due to the financial contraints of a rural high school and probably assisted by the patriotic blindness following WWII (I'm guessing) only French was offered in high school.

It wasn't until I arrived at a state university that I had any opportunity to study the German language, and I took 5 semesters of it. I'm nowhere near fluent, but I still study it off and on, and my extended family still has Old World connections. I'm glad that one year was "required" because that gave me the boost and the excuse to devote tuition to what I wanted to learn.

I like the foreign language requirement because we in the U.S. tend to be so insular and unaware of the rest of the world. Yet I resist the idea of forcing everybody to learn one particular foreign language (Spanish being the current rage), when there is a smorgasboard of world languages to learn.
Yeah Baby!
I was soooo happy to go to undergrad at Brown University where there were NO requirements. I immediately swore off foreign languages because I'd struggled with and hated required French classes all through high school.

Now, however, I wish I knew Spanish and consider taking it up.

By the way, DD, I have a new post from a prof asking for advice and would love for you to weigh in on the matter. Thanks.
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