Students distraught with meeting the rigorous demands of the foreign language requirement for the College of Literature, Science, and Arts will not find relief soon. This week, LSA faculty decided to delay further deliberation on the most recent proposal to modify the requirement. The current LSA language requirement places a significant burden on students. The current proposal, however, would imperil one of the key components of a liberal arts education — knowledge of a foreign language. LSA faculty should move swiftly with reform, but should consider a less drastic change.
The proposal, which has been tabled until October, would allow students to take two semesters of two different languages instead of achieving fourth-semester proficiency in one language, with the condition that the languages taken are in different departments. If students prove second-semester proficiency on the placement exam, they would only have to take two semesters of a second language to fulfill the requirement.
Advocates of the change include many students who argue the language requirement is more onerous than other LSA requirements because it forces students to take at least 12 credits in a language. For their part, administrators have long held that comprehending a foreign language is necessary to pursue a truly complete liberal arts education.
While many students would like to see the college abandon its language requirement completely, the requirement is an important part of making students culturally informed and aware. In an increasingly global society, students should not be so arrogant as to assume that English will forever be the lingua franca, and at the very least should have a basic knowledge of one foreign language. Mandating only two semesters of language instruction would be insufficient to meet this goal.
Fourth-semester proficiency, however, constitutes an unnecessary burden for many students. While four semesters is not enough to develop fluency, it is more than enough to gain exposure to and basic knowledge of a language. LSA faculty should consider Classical Studies Prof. Derek Collins’s proposal to allow a student who has achieved second-semester proficiency in one language during high school to take only three semesters of a second language to fulfill the requirement. This model would allow more choice for students who do not want to continue a language they picked in high school and do not have the time or desire to complete four semesters of a new language. Such a move would also encourage students to explore less common languages such as Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is spoken today by millions in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador — and taught in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Department.
LSA faculty could take a number of other initiatives that would maintain the importance of a foreign language requirement while also lessening the burden on students. First, the University could provide an intensive language program to students who are willing to cover four semesters of material in two terms. Right now there are a few classes that combine the first two semesters, but no accelerated options are available at higher levels. Second, students should be able to prove fourth-semester proficiency by retaking the placement exam whenever they desire.
If these suggestions were implemented, language departments would be able to free many resources to focus on higher-level courses — far too few of which are offered in some departments. Achieving a balance between student choice and the broader benefit of learning a foreign language will not be easy, but it is a worthwhile endeavor that faculty should be ready to tackle immediately.