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UW to relax foreign language requirements

Students who took three years in high school will satisfy foreign language requirements. Is this a good thing?
The University of Washington

The University of Washington Crosscut Flickr contributor lachance

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 national monolingualism. And learning a foreign language has cognitive benefits beyond being able to order pirozhky, in Russian, off the Nevsky Prospekt.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 26, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

In a global economy, how can we be so isolationist about language? To me it's the ultimate in arrogance to call our students educated when they speak and understand only English. Of course, I'm an old fogy. Back in the day, one needed two (not one) year of foreign language for a bachelor's degree. Speaking, understanding and reading competence, at least at the rudimentary level, was expected. Still there are jobs in the Southwest today where fluency in both English and Spanish is a prerequisite to employment. How, when we outsource so many jobs to foreign countries, can we continue to expect their citizens to learn our language when we are too lazy to learn theirs. And, BTW, the time to start language learning is in kindergarten when linguistic ability is starting to form.

arizonan

Posted Thu, Feb 26, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

The UW once again is casting onto high schools the educational responsibility that should be theirs.

Around 30 years ago, high schools were doing such a good job teaching English composition to their college bound seniors, that the UW decided to drop the Freshman English requirement. Within two years or less, English requirements for high school graduation were lowered in many districts. Even some English teachers said "if the UW does not think English composition should be requried, why should we?"

About two years after the UW dropped its Freshman English requirement, a local paper carried a front page story of a professor in the English department complaining about the lack of adequate preparation in English composition among entering freshmen. Apparently, it never occurred to this professor that it was his own department's lack of discipline that was really the cause of the drop in student preparation for college work.

Whether or not it is a role that is sought, the UW's requirements have a profound effect on graduation requirements in many high schools. By watering down their foreign language requirements, I fear the UW will adversely affect foreign language enrollments in high schools as well.

As a former foreign language teacher,I know that the UW foreign language requirement was one factor that often was the only thing that kept high school students enrolled in foreign language classses. I fear that a result of the UW's decision may well be that within a year or two we will read complaints in local papers about the numbers of entering freshmen who have little or no background in foreign language. What will be the UW's answer then?

Harrybari

Posted Thu, Feb 26, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Foreign languages should be taught in grade school! Children lose a tremendous amount of their ability to pick up a language with the onset of puberty. The reason so many Europeans are functionally bi- or tri-lingual is because they began learning those languages when they were six. Just one more way in which the US education system is lacking.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Feb 26, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

The fact is that parents who want their children to speak a second language with native fluently simply need to put their children into immersion programs at the elementary level, and/or have their children spend several hours a day with a parent, grandparent, au-pair, or nanny who is a *native* speaker of that second language and who does not speak English to the child, ever. Period. No other approach is better.

There is a lot of mythology out there about cheaper or less disruptive ways of conveying proficiency in a second language--which is why French and Spanish DVDs for children are so popular (despite the fact that they simply don't work). Yet no technology exists that can supplant the simple *developmental* fact that languages are best learned before puberty (but not necessarily as infants) and as a form of communication between *two* or more *real human beings.* No computer program or DVD can change this.

When we ignore these facts and focus on teaching young people second languages in an academic setting at the secondary or postsecondary level, we are thus saying that we don't necessarily want native fluency to be the result of that language education. (We might not realize it, but it is in effect what we are saying.)

When we opt to teach languages that way, we are actually saying that 1. we want our kids to have only a terribly minimal ability to communicate in that language, perhaps combined with superficial knowledge of another culture that speaks that language and that 2. we want our kids to have some kind of academic knowledge of "language" and "grammar" in general (what is a verb, noun, conjugation, declension, etc.).

Thus, academic language courses at the secondary and postsecondary levels should really be regarded first and foremost as a kind of applied introduction to linguistics and anthropology--and not at all as a sincere approach to developing native-equivalent language skills.

(Now, this is not to say that many, many people don't develop a high level of proficiency and even native-equivalent fluency from secondary and postsecondary language programs, because many do, but in truth the number of students who achieve this is very, very small.)

Because most students don't develop strong enough language skills from secondary and postsecondary academic language programs, there is also no concrete benefit to most students career-wise. Frankly, most American kids simply have no need for a second language at all (yes, yes, yes: it's of intellectual value intrinsically, but let's be pragmatic for a moment). The small percentage who do have this need are more motivated to learn a second language anyway and usually end up spending a semester or year abroad, which is a far more efficient way to learn than in an academic setting. (We would require foreign exchanges if we really believed in teaching our kids world languages, but, again, we do not.)

I might also criticize university-level language programs as being way too focused on literature when the majority of non-language majors really would benefit from things like "business Spanish" or "Chinese for engineers," etc. Literature-oriented programs are actually not generally competent to teach these kinds of language. I've often wondered why we don't split first- and second-year language programs off into their own "Departments of World Language Learning" or something to insulate them from the often-ineffectual biases of literature professors who control the programs now.

I thus think that the UW's decision is appropriate and realistic, if unfortunate. The up side is that it might now force university language programs to quickly move away from their heavy literature focus toward more practical applied-field foci in order to retain enrollment levels.

But until parents learn and accept the truth about childhood language learning and demand new options and changes at the elementary level, we will still be stuck with an educational system that inherently can never teach native-equivalent fluency.

smacgry

Posted Thu, Feb 26, 1:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Even if you never use the foreign language after you graduate, learning another language teaches you a lot about your native tongue, and linguistics in general. If knowledge of that language prompts you to eventually visit its country of origin (and not just to hang out at the Marriot and ride tour buses) all the better. We Americans are almost criminal in our cultural provincialism.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Feb 26, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

"As a former foreign language teacher,I know that the UW foreign language requirement was one factor that often was the only thing that kept high school students enrolled in foreign language classses. I fear that a result of the UW's decision may well be that within a year or two we will read complaints in local papers about the numbers of entering freshmen who have little or no background in foreign language. What will be the UW's answer then?
— Harrybari "

Your argument does not make sense. UW is not doing away with the foreign language requirement, they are just going to accept 3 years of high school foreign language to satisfy the requirement. This should have the opposite effect that you suggest, it should increase high school foreign language enrollment. For those that have no intention of pursuing or using a foreign language after college graduation, why should they use up their valuable time and tuition dollars taking a years worth of courses that in their opinion have little value. If I were a high school student today with my sights set on UW, I would look at fulfilling the requirement in high school and saving myself money.

Now, the other side of the argument, that they won't become proficient in the language in 3 years of high school is suspect also. I would think that after 3 years of high school foreign language, the student would have a pretty good idea on whether or not they want to be proficient.

I am not against people learning new languages and becoming proficient in them. There are many career paths that demand it. There are both monetary and cultural arguments for it. But I think UW is on the right track, they are demanding that some exposure to a foreign language is required for graduation. They are just giving individuals more choices on how to attain it.

gman

Posted Sat, Feb 28, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

What do people want from foreign language education? If it's to gain a spoken proficiency in the language, that's not likely to happen even if you take classes for a decade. Unless a second language is spoken at home, a degree of fluency and literacy usually comes only by living in a nation where a particular language is spoken.

If the program's intention is to introduce students to a different culture, then this is a reasonable and worthy goal, and is probably a better way of achieving this than a history or social studies class of some sort.

And, as was point out by another poster, you may actually learn more about grammar and sentence structure in a foreign language class than you would in any English class you take since we quit teaching the basics decades ago.

U.S. educators have been beating the two note drum of science and math now for quite a while, often at the expensive of the humanities and social sciences. While a fourth year of secondary school language instruction may just be an extra hoop to jump through for admissions to the University of Washington (which is already over-enrolled - not everyone or even most people need to go to college as it's structured today), this additional year is not an undue burden on anyone intent on attending college.

Posted Tue, Mar 3, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Update: According to the Daily (http://dailyuw.com/2009/3/2/high-school-language-classes-now-count-uw-credit/), this has officially been approved by the Faculty Council on Academic Standards. All that now remains is President Emmert's signature.

Also, apparently "the plan originally mandated that students earn a 3.0 GPA in high-school language classes; it now accepts any passing grade."

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