One of the biggest advantages of going to such a large school like the University of Michigan is the overwhelmingly diverse suite of courses available. Next semester I will be taking German 102. If all goes well, in the fall of 2022, I’ll be taking German 231. I will finally complete German 232, and the LSA language requirement, in late April 2023. However, there is nothing more discouraging than limping out of a difficult test knowing it’s not “just one tough course” but four. LSA’s language requirement — “fourth term proficiency” — certainly has its benefits, namely cultural immersion and the opportunity to engage with students from different areas of study, but with them comes a slew of solvable problems.
The language requirement’s biggest drawback is the hefty credit requirement. A student taking a full 16-credit language sequence could otherwise complete an entire minor. No other LSA requirement is as extensive. The area distribution requirements necessitate seven credits in each of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The other skills requirements — race and ethnicity, writing and quantitative reasoning — can be met with one or two courses. More so, there are plenty of courses that meet both a distribution and a skills requirement, freeing up time for more major-related courses or enlightening electives. No language class can be used similarly.
Many avoid the full 16-credit sequence through placement tests. Students from less fortunate backgrounds who went to less affluent high schools may not have that option. High schools in low-income communities, often with a high proportion of minority students, offer less rigorous and less diverse foreign language programs that start at an older age. Because of their high school background, some students may be forced into the four-semester sequence. Should they be placed into a higher-level language course, those with a less effective foreign language education might struggle. My own discomfort with jumping into second-year Spanish, knowing I had not taken Spanish in years and hesitant to risk failure, is why I started over with elementary German.
The lack of choice, at least in coursework, makes the four-term language sequence even more troubling. The language requirement is fundamentally different from other LSA requirements, which can be fulfilled through a varied set of courses. Yes, students can choose from dozens of languages, but the process of learning those languages is mechanically similar. Students will always have to memorize vocabulary, understand grammatical rules and practice pronunciation. Compare that to courses that fill the natural science credit. STEM-minded students can take rigorous courses in chemistry or physics, while social science students, like myself, have plenty of approachable options. For example, I took an ecological issues course, which allowed me to learn the basics of environmental science in part through environmental policies.
Despite the curriculum’s length and my own struggles with language learning, I like going to German class. I like my classmates and my instructor. The other requirements being so broad means some courses, like the ecological issues course I took last year, become inundated with social science students looking to meet a natural science requirement with as little stress as possible. In other words, because the actual work of learning a language is generally uniform, it is easier to meet people from more diverse disciplines. In German class, I’ve met and learned with a theater major, a computer science major, a nursing student and a law student, as opposed to the aspiring political science majors in every other course I’ve taken so far.
My instructor is a graduate student from Germany. This is her first time in the United States. Her knowledge of German culture, outside textbook blurbs, has yielded some of the most valuable and intriguing things I’ve learned. I chose to take German not because I intend to become fluent in the language but because I find the culture and the history interesting. We’ve read a famous German children’s book, watched the acclaimed German film “Run Lola Run” and learned about German politics, schools, food and relationships. German class encouraged me to binge-watch the excellent German-language TV show “Dark.” Yes, I can order food in a German restaurant or ask for directions, but, for me, the real value is seeing Germany not through stereotypes but as a diverse and beautiful country.
Culture and classmates are the things that even someone like me, who both dislikes and struggles at language acquisition, cannot avoid benefitting from. It just so happens that LSA has a system in place which offers another option for those who struggle with traditional language learning while maintaining those benefits. Students can petition for a language requirement exemption, allowing them to “substitute culture courses for language courses.” To do so, though, students must either have “a documented history of extreme difficulty” in language learning or have already taken and struggled in multiple language courses.
Allowing anyone to take culture courses in place of language courses would maintain the current requirement’s benefits while giving students who would rather not learn a language a different way to engage. It would also allow LSA to reasonably lower the requirement from four semesters to two or three, because fluency, which takes time, would no longer be the goal. Instead of culture being assigned as a short reading at the end of every chapter, that aspect could be made central to classroom learning objectives. More so, creating an alternative certainly would not limit those who enjoy studying language.
Giving students just two ways to meet the language requirement, culture classes or language classes, still would not match the broad freedoms of LSA’s other requirements. That means there would still be no way for students from similar disciplines to congregate in relatively easier courses, as seen with LSA’s other requirements. A second option would therefore maintain student diversity — a huge boon of the current system.
A cultural option would also strengthen the ability of LSA students to learn from diverse cultures, by allowing risk-averse students to experience cultures with a more challenging language. The Foreign Service Institute, which categorizes languages based on the time it would take an English speaker to obtain basic fluency, places mostly European languages in the easier levels. Increasing access to cultural education taught mainly in English would allow students intimidated by the difficulty of Arabic, Bengali or Tibetan languages to learn about those cultures.
The LSA language requirement is, generally, a good thing for liberal arts students to experience, but its more stressful aspects can be alleviated by reforming the existing system while maintaining its crucial benefits.
Quin Zapoli is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.