On Jan. 14, 2009, President Mark Emmert wrote the University of Washington community about "the severe economic conditions and... some of our efforts to deal with them." One proposed money-saving measure was "changing the way students can meet foreign language requirements, reducing costs and making it more productive and meaningful for students... an initiative that emanated from our language departments themselves."
I asked a UW professor in one of those language departments for details. He wrote:
The current policy is that students must achieve first-year proficiency in a foreign language in order to graduate from the university with a B.A. There are basically two ways that students can show that proficiency; they can complete the third quarter of a first-year language class with a passing grade, or they can take a department-administered proficiency exam.
What they can't do is satisfy the requirement by pointing to language classes that they have taken in high school. The general formula used for high-school-to-college equivalence is that three years of a language in high school is equivalent to one year in college. Nevertheless, students who took three years of a language in high school cannot meet the university's foreign language requirement except by one of the two methods I just listed.
That will now change. As of next year, students who have taken three years of a language in high school will automatically satisfy the university's graduation requirement. This will have the effect of reducing, dramatically for some languages, the number of students enrolled in first-year classes.
Some things to bear in mind. First, the high-school-to-college equivalence is theoretical. In practice, many students who take three years of high-school language are not at the same level as students who complete one year at UW. So students will now be graduating with less language competency than before.
Nevertheless, I think this is a good thing. Frankly, a year of college language isn't worth much. It's basically just exposure. Three years of high school does the same thing. Moreover, students who are only in a first-year class to satisfy the requirement are the least motivated students. Keeping them out of first-year language classes will probably improve the overall atmosphere and achievement level of first-year students. Our department has long been in favor of a move like this, but many departments on campus have opposed it, fearing unfavorable drops in enrollment and the loss of TA positions for their graduate students, among other things.
Indeed, The Daily reports that 20 percent of College of Arts and Sciences TA positions will be eliminated next year. Languages that are popular in high school and hence attract those who seek to fulfill the minimum requirements look to be hit hardest, e.g., French, with a projected 41 percent cut in 100-level sections.
As the son of a UW Korean professor and a student of languages myself, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as my correspondent notes, this should result in a much higher level of motivation in first-year language classes. One of the best learning experiences I had at the UW was RUSS150, Intensive First-Year Russian. A full course load for summer quarter, it compresses the entire first-year sequence into eight weeks, which is not exactly for the unmotivated.
The Daily also notes that these cuts will "also allow... teaching more sections of less-commonly-taught languages at more advanced levels." Robert Stacey, divisional dean of Arts and Humanities, is quoted as saying, "There is a huge demand for Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian." As one who remembers threats to the Korean and Russian programs in the not-too-distant past, I find this a welcome development.
Yet, I'm generally against relaxing graduation requirements, especially those having to do with language. As a linguaphile, I'd honestly like to see the requirement increased to two years, with at least a few additional courses in English language (not composition). A year of college language isn't worth much; two might actually be useful. But surely some exposure is better than none, if we want to progress beyond our
But my correspondent is correct. Far better than providing exposure to them as teenagers and young adults would be to require that children start learning foreign languages in junior high, if not elementary school. Of course, this would be a stretch, as Washington doesn't require any foreign-language instruction in order to graduate high school. But universities can't make up for the deficiencies of primary education forever, as this budget move shows. I just hope that, in its efforts to avoid becoming Montlake High School, the University of Washington doesn't turn into Montlake Technical College.
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