For many students, the University’s two-year foreign language requirement is a chore.
But for those with language disabilities, completing a sequence in a foreign language can be downright impossible.
What many students don’t know, though, is that even students without a documented learning disability can petition the University for a foreign language waiver that will exempt them from the requirement altogether.
LSA sophomore Brittany Stembridge said she’s an ‘A’ student. But when she started her Spanish 100 course earlier this term, she knew right away it would be too difficult for her.
“The professor talked primarily in Spanish, so it was very difficult to understand what she was saying,” she said. “I took a test and I didn’t do so badly, but I figured it was going to get harder.”
After dropping the class, Stembridge talked to her academic adviser to find out whether she could opt out of the foreign language requirement.
In order for students to obtain a foreign language waiver, they must petition the Academic Standards Board, which requires students to write a letter detailing their difficulties with the language and submit at least one letter of support from a professor. They then take the Modern Language Aptitude Test – a two-hour exam measuring skills correlated with the ability to learn a foreign language. Using the exam results and letters of support, the Board decides whether to grant the student a waiver.
Split into five parts, the exam measures skills like listening comprehension and memorization. It’s given twice a semester, and students who have taken the test said it’s somewhat colorful.
“It was really weird,” said Stembridge, who took the test last week. “It was like a made-up language.”
Part of the exam actually is administered in a made-up language, said Stuart Segal, the associate director and coordinator of Services for Students with Learning Disabilities, which administers the exam. Segal said that while some of the test is in a fake language, the final section is written in Kurdish.
“In one part of the test we measure short-term memory,” Segal said. “You’re given 20 words and then we see what you remember.”
Though the exam is evaluative and students don’t technically pass or fail it, Segal said there’s no way to prevent students from trying to bomb the exam on purpose.
“You can purposefully tank the test,” Segal said. “It’s something that we’re well aware of and we wonder about, ourselves.”
Segal said the committee would notice, though, if a student’s test results were wildly different from everyone else’s.
“We compare the results of the aptitude test with your academic record,” he said. “If you bomb the exam and you got into the University, it’s usually going to be pretty obvious, and you’re not going to get what you want.”
When asked how often waivers are granted to those who apply, Segal said “frequently,” but that there were no official statistics to prove his estimate.
Many students said their academic advisers told them about the exam, but that the option isn’t well publicized. LSA sophomore Ebony Sunday said she heard about the exam from her friend’s older sister.
Mary Lambert, an LSA sophomore, said she struggled through a Spanish class last year and had no idea she could receive an exemption.
“Last year I was at office hours all the time,” Lambert said. “And this year, I don’t think my professor even knew the test existed.”
Jeffery Harrold, chair of the Quantitative Reasoning Committee and a member of the Academic Standards Board, said students shouldn’t rush to take the exam after a disappointing quiz score.
He suggested that struggling students seek help from their professors or graduate student instructors.
But when that’s not enough, he said, sitting down with an academic adviser and determining candidacy for a language waiver is the next step.
“Once they’ve talked to the instructor about what’s happening in that class, the first person I tell them to talk to is their academic adviser,” Harrold said.
Chalmers Knight, the chair of the Foreign Language Waiver Committee, said the process is holistic and that the committee tries to assess each case on its own merits.
“We give everyone due process and we are quite diligent about being fair to both students and the college,” Knight said.
Cathleen Conway-Perrin, director of the Academic Standards Board, said students who think they might have a learning disability should seek help at the University’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities.