In 1997, at the request of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Student Government, the LSA Joint Faculty-Student Policy Committee issued its Report on Second Language Instruction. Recognizing widespread student dissatisfaction with the language requirement, the committee proposed a broad series of curriculum reforms to make it more appealing and interesting. Yet, William Paulson, then chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature made it very clear: “It’s unlikely that the kinds of changes we can make in the curriculum will have much of an impact on the relatively small minority who strongly resent the LSA language requirement.”

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Eight years later, many of the committee’s suggestions have been implemented. Classes are relatively small, instructors attempt to weave cultural and social themes into the courses and the four-semester sequence is effectively a two-year language program, not four discrete and disjoint courses. However, despite these efforts, Paulson’s “small minority” has continued to grow; acting on cues from students, LSA-SG has approached the LSA administration with a plan to fundamentally change – and irreparably damage – the language proficiency requirement.

Under the proposed change, the “fourth semester” requirement would be replaced by a “2-2” requirement: Instead of fourth semester proficiency in one language, a student could instead take two semesters in two separate languages. The benefit, supporters argue, would be increased flexibility. Students would no longer have to slave through a language they don’t enjoy, but took in high school, because they placed into the third semester and have to take only two classes to fulfill the requirement. Students would not be forced to stick with a language they didn’t enjoy because they didn’t wish to start over with semester one of another language. Students would even be able to dabble in two languages, broadening their exposure.

Unfortunately, these rationales disregard the intent of the proficiency requirement, which is – as the name implies – proficiency. After two introductory semesters in two separate languages, a student – while able to ask for water and find the bathroom in two different languages – will be able to effectively use neither. While four semesters of a foreign language will not enable a student to achieve fluency, they do provide a solid base. Two introductory semesters do not.

In reality, the LSA-SG plan is not about providing flexibility, or enabling students to study languages they would love to understand but cannot find the time to take. The changes attempt to gut the LSA language requirement, but to do so under the guise of giving students “many more options.”

The suggestion that the current structure of the language requirement needs to be altered because it “punishes people who want to try new things” is disingenuous. Yes, there may be a strong incentive to simply trudge through two semesters of Spanish instead of starting over with four semesters of Chinese. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, two extra semesters -10 extra credit hours, at most – is not a significant commitment, considering that an LSA student needs 120 credit hours for graduation. If an incoming student is really interested in exploring a new language, he undoubtedly has the time in his four years at the University to do so.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the purpose of the requirement is proficiency. It is a “fourth semester proficiency,” not “four semester” requirement; superficial understanding of two languages is not equivalent to a more thorough exposure to one. If someone is interested in dabbling around in different languages, he has plenty of time to do so after demonstrating proficiency in one language. LSA advisors often show students a pie chart, breaking down how they can spend the 120 credit hours needed for degree completion. Assuming that it takes 30 credits to finish a major, 30 to fulfill distribution and 30 more to complete the remaining LSA requirements (language, race and ethnicity, etc.), that leaves 30 credits (often more) that are entirely uncommitted.

Indeed, instead of providing more options and flexibility to those students who have a legitimate intellectual curiosity in language, the requirement change will most benefit those who simply don’t want to deal with the academic rigor of studying a foreign language. While the total number of semesters required isn’t changing, the proposal makes the requirement substantially less intense by making second-year courses optional. Because language instruction is exponential – lessons are built on previous lessons – the first two semesters expose students to far less than the latter two. Thus, the change dumbs-down the requirement by allowing students to get out of higher-level courses. This, fundamentally, is the reason why so many students support the change: It makes things easier.

College, however – especially at an elite university such as this one – is not about doing what is easy. The language requirement may be difficult and time consuming, but it is a fundamental part of the liberal arts education that LSA aims to provide. When the requirement was overhauled in 1997, the joint committee provided three general rationales for mandating language instruction: It fosters intellectual and analytical development, cross-cultural understanding and awareness and opens up personal and professional opportunities.

Unless LSA faculty members wish to abandon these goals, they should not accept the watered-down language requirement offered by LSA-SG.


Momin can be reached at smomin@umich.edu. Discuss this column with him on the Daily Opinion blog, which is accessible from michigandaily.com.

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