Students, professors talk pros and cons of LSA language requirement

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 - 7:12pm

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Willa Hua/Daily

LSA senior Aly Nedell is taking a course titled The Italian Mafia this semester. Any other student might elect to take Italian 240 out of pure curiosity, or to fulfill the distribution requirement in the humanities. But Nedell is receiving credit for this course as her language requirement.

Nedell took three years of Italian in high school but placed into the beginner Italian 101 course after taking her University of Michigan foreign language placement exam. After taking a portion of the course and dropping it, fearing poor performance would lower her grade point average, Nedell was told by her academic adviser that she would have to take Italian 102 in order to compensate for not completing Italian 101. Unable to find information about alternatives online, she met with her academic adviser, who led her in the direction of petitioning the requirement. Soon after, she began exploring the process of finding an alternative to the LSA language requirement.

“It was honestly one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences as a student because there’s so much research into people who just struggle with foreign language,” Nedell said. “But because LSA is so regimented with their requirements, it’s not easy to find information on alternatives.”

After meeting with an academic adviser and completing an interview stating her case, Nedell took a 90-minute Modern Language Aptitude Test, which she described as similar to the placement exam that is required of most LSA students prior to starting at the University.

“(I had) to schedule an appointment to take an LSA language aptitude test, but it’s in no particular language — it’s a fake language that you have to try to teach yourself,” Nedell said. “During (the exam) they provide you with fake words, but you do what you would normally do when learning a language.”

The score Nedell received on the aptitude test, in tandem with the academic adviser’s report, became her evidence to prove she could not learn and excel in language courses. In addition to these administered portions, Nedell was asked to provide two letters of recommendation from past Italian professors, explaining her inability to learn Italian. She also wrote an essay and submitted college and high school academic transcripts. After nearly nine months of searching and requesting permission for an alternative to the LSA language requirement, Nedell was approved to take two equivalent semesters of Italian culture classes to satisfy the requirement.

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The LSA language requirement requires students to take four semesters worth of language courses in hopes the student will become proficient in a language other than English. According to the LSA website, more than 40 languages are offered across LSA to fulfill the language requirement. The number of language courses one must take can be minimized for some languages by completing a placement exam, which, depending on how well the student performs on it, can exempt students from as many as all four semesters of the requirement. Advanced Placement credit for language courses, among other examinations, can also aid students in expediting the process of completing the requirement.

LSA last reviewed the language requirement in 2004 and upheld its original requirements. As fewer institutions require undergraduate students to take courses in a language other than English for two or more semesters, LSA continues to instill language proficiency of four semesters in its students. Angela Dillard, the associate dean for Undergraduate Education in LSA, wrote in an email to The Daily that despite other universities' decisions to cut down language departments, LSA still believes strongly in the benefits of the language requirement. 

“Many of us are concerned that some institutions have begun to eliminate language study departments, and to offer less and fewer opportunities for second language acquisition,” Dillard wrote. “LSA remains committed to the two-year language requirement and to offering a wide range of opportunities, including those in less commonly taught languages.”

Students have expressed concerns over the LSA language requirement since its conception, particularly in terms of its four-semester length and hefty time commitment. Many languages are recitation courses, meaning they are taught four days a week, limiting students’ ability to schedule other classes.

Four semesters, or two years, are oftentimes only the prerequisites to pursuing a major or minor in a language. In the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, for example, five semesters of the student’s respective language must be completed before they can begin working toward the major or minor. Some students opt for this route, but those who are on pre-professional tracks or wish to explore other interests are boxed into taking a language for at least half of their college career.

LSA freshman Natalie White is currently enrolled in French. After completing four years of French in middle and high school, she placed into French 103, of second-semester equivalency. White, who is on a pre-medicine track, expressed frustration with the fact that both her major requirements and pre-professional track pose a heavy course load, and her foreign language requirements require the same, if not more, time and attention.

“I have a whole major I need to finish, and pre-med prerequisites I need to finish, and now I need to take three semesters of this language,” White said. “It’s been really frustrating because (French is) not a low-credit class.”

The intense hours and extensive course work surrounding the language requirement cause some students to question the purpose of the requirement, and whether or not the language skills they acquire through LSA will help them in the long run. The demands of French, in addition to her other academic commitments, have pushed White to consider transferring out of LSA in order to avoid the language requirement.

“I really love the school of LSA, but if I switch into another school I wouldn’t have to take this language requirement … it’s gotten to that point,” White said.

While some students have strong opinions against the LSA language requirement and its effectiveness, LSA administrators and many faculty members voice their support for the requirement, citing lifelong skills that learning a language can bring to students.

“LSA’s language requirement seeks to prepare students for a world that has been profoundly transformed by the forces of globalization,” the LSA website states. “Learning a second language provides both a deep awareness of linguistic and cultural differences and a means to bridge them.”

Echoing the mission of cultivating cultural awareness amid globalization, Hartmut Rastalsky, language program director for the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department, praised the LSA language requirement and its ability to create well-rounded and cultured students. 

“(Language) provides students with intercultural skills that will be invaluable to them both globally and locally, in their professional and personal lives,” Rastalsky said. “Learning a foreign language makes students more aware of how their own language works, and thus helps them to become better and more creative.”

Dillard further emphasized the advantages of achieving proficiency in a foreign language. 

“Language study is (and ought to remain) a cornerstone of an education in the liberal arts and sciences,” Dillard wrote. “It gives students a value skill, an important way of understanding and navigating the world, and a competitive edge.”

While acknowledging the importance of having knowledge in a language other than English, White noted the lack of enthusiasm and participation that exist in the requirement-level language courses.

“I get the point of having to take a foreign language because the U.S. is so ignorant to understanding other languages, but at the same time it should be a choice,” White said. “There’s nothing worse than sitting in a foreign language class and no one wants to be there.”

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LSA junior Yosef Gross is majoring in Spanish and also taking courses in Yiddish, but placed out of the language requirement after taking the placement exam. Continuing to take languages for fun, Gross stressed the importance of using language to communicate with people from different cultures.

“I think taking a language can be a very eye-opening experience, because when you communicate with someone in their native language … it’s like you’re making an effort to meet them where they are,” Gross said. “A lot of times it can lead to more meaningful and productive conversations.”

LSA senior Holly Wood is currently in a second-year Indonesian language course. After a self-proclaimed embarrassing placement exam experience with Mandarin Chinese, Wood decided to take Indonesian instead. She wrote in email to The Daily she recognizes the intense nature of the requirement but understands the overarching benefits as well.

“While it is annoying to have a language as a requirement, I do think it is important for students to learn different languages and cultures,” Wood wrote. “I support the (two) year language requirement, especially because these language classes get students interested in a lot of the (culture) on campus.”

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To petition the LSA language requirement, students must go through the Office of Academic Standards and Opportunities’ Academic Standards Board, which reviews student petitions and provides the students with substitution culture courses if they prove their inability to learn a language. Prior to petitioning, a student must attempt a foreign language course, exert a “good-faith” effort in the course (including near-perfect attendance and strong participation), and then consult their foreign language instructor for assistance in seeking an alternative. Students can find the information regarding the petition process if they speak to someone at the Office of Academic Standards and Opportunities.

The first step of the process is making an appointment with an adviser on the Language Exception Committee, and registering to take a foreign language course. The student wishing to petition must remain in the course for at least nine weeks before beginning the petition process, so the committee can receive enough information from the professor to prove the student cannot learn the language. According to Toni Morales, associate director of the Academics Standards Board, about 40 students successfully petition the language requirement per year, making it a rare occurrence among the LSA student body.

“When students sign up to be a student in LSA, they’re told what the requirements are, so they’ve decided, ‘Yes, I will do these requirements’,” Morales said. “That’s part of the degree … maybe they don’t want a liberal arts degree, I don’t know, but (the language requirement is) integral.”

Upon developing her case for petitioning the language requirement, Nedell said the Academic Standards Board recommended she pursue a Bachelor of General Studies instead of her current major of Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience because the B.G.S. curriculum does not have a language requirement. Nedell explained  the board did not take into account the fact that many students have diverse interests and aspirations that span beyond the General Studies degree, which they may already be working toward within their current major or minor.

“That’s not really fair, because you should still be able to have a focus just because you can’t pass a language,” Nedell said.

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When it comes to placement exams, testing conditions vary based on which language a student is taking. Primarily within the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, the differences are stark. For example, French and Italian placement exams must be completed in-person, Spanish placement exams are online, and Portuguese placement exams are by appointment only. Gross noted this deviation in exam type and exam accessibility, calling for cohesion in policy across languages.

“I think it’s interesting that certain languages administer the placement exam in person, and then others (are through) your laptop at home,” Gross said. “I just think that gives some languages an advantage in terms of taking it in person versus at home; I think it would be better if (LSA) had that more uniform.”

White finds the inequality between languages to be unfair, especially because an online test allows students to prepare materials beforehand. In some instances, she said, people can employ friends or acquaintances to take their online placement exam on their behalf.

“I’ve heard of people having other people take their Spanish test for them, so they can place out of Spanish,” White said. “I would never have someone take the language test for me, but it’s just not fair that I could have sat down with my notes from the past four years and taken it.”

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Some suggestions to improve the LSA language requirement include allowing for a combination of culture courses and language courses, or the ability to take various beginner-level language classes to receive equivalent credit. Nedell said she believes the requirement should have more flexibility. 

“For a school that emphasizes tradition so much I think sometimes there’s an issue with self-reflection on improving certain academic strategies,” Nedell said. “I think there should be more flexibility incorporated into how you choose your requirements.”