Language depts reevaluate

Following the Nov. 6 heavily-disputed decision to change Yale College’s foreign language requirements beginning with the Class of 2009, the University’s language departments are now starting to consider what alterations in curricula and instruction the new requirements will necessitate.

As language instructors look warily toward the future, many predict the need for broad and costly course re-evaluation, which they say will sacrifice the overall quality of language instruction.

“Across the board, this is going to call for wide-scale redesign of the curriculum,” East Asian Languages and Literatures professor Edward Kamens said.

According to the faculty-approved recommendations of the 2003 Report on Yale College Education, the language requirement for students who have not demonstrated proficiency in a foreign language will be changed from four to three semesters, and students may satisfy requirements with study abroad. In addition, all students demonstrating proficiency — who now pass out of any requirements — must take at least one semester of language study.

Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, chairman of the 41-member faculty and student review committee, said the changes will balance the distribution of courses and encourage proficient students to continue their language studies.

“It’s about rethinking the nature of the requirement to make foreign language learning a more functional and integral part of a student’s college education,” Brodhead said.

The recommendations concerning foreign language instruction were the most controversial of the proposed changes to the academic program. During last week’s two and a half hour ladder-faculty meeting, and in the months preceding the vote, many language instructors argued against the proposed one-semester reduction of the language requirement for nonproficient students.

Among language instructors, reactions to Thursday’s decision ranged from ambivalence to outrage.

“We have to put up with it, but I don’t want my students to suffer,” Irina Dolgova, a senior lector in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, said.

In particular, Dolgova said she and other professors object to what they see as the Committee on Yale College Education’s willingness to sacrifice quality of language instruction for diversity of study. Instructors said it will be nearly impossible to squeeze what is currently four semesters of material into three.

Dolgova said courses would probably need to be redesigned so that all essential grammar and usage points will be covered by the third semester. But she said the “cognitive” nature of language acquisition, as well as an already heavy workload, limits the amount of material that can be reasonably covered within that time.

“We won’t be able to get to the same point by the end of the third semester,” director of programs for African languages Sandra Sanneh said.

French professor and chairman Edwin Duval said current beginning and intermediate language courses, which are designed to be year-long, may need to be turned into independent semester-long courses. Duval said departments will probably need to offer primary instruction during both fall and spring semesters — a change that will call for a “doubling” of administrators and staff.

“I believe it will cost the University more, bottom line,” Duval said.

Despite the estimated costs — and the current budget deficit — proponents of the changes argue that the current foreign language requirements account for a disproportionate percentage of distributional requirements.

Brodhead has been working to raise funds for the review changes since the spring of 2003.

Currently, the foreign language requirements limit the range of electives available to majors in Groups III and IV, which already have a larger number of required major credits, astronomy professor and chairman Charles Bailyn said.

“The problem is not that science students don’t have enough time to take science,” he said. “The problem is what do science students take outside of science — The consequence [of the current requirements] is they don’t take courses in the English Department.”

Although most instructors in the language departments applaud the decision to require proficient students to study an additional semester, they turn a more doubtful eye to the report’s emphasis on study abroad.

The report says that students can gain credit for their language requirement by completing an “approved summer study or internship in a foreign country.” According to the report, the Center for Language Study will be responsible for approving students’ abroad credit, and the University must “significantly expand” its advising structure for students looking for suitable programs.

“The reality is that it’s a rare person that can achieve real fluency in a foreign language by sitting in a classroom studying books,” history professor Emeritus Gaddis Smith said.

But language instructors say they worry about the Center for Language Study’s ability to accurately decide if students deserve credit for study abroad. Moreover, instructors say that one year of language experience, as the report suggests, is hardly enough background to make time abroad useful.

“The common notion of total immersion is a fallacy,” Spanish and Portuguese chairman Roberto Echevarria said. “We don’t even teach swimming with total immersion.”

Increased emphasis on study abroad — an area that many say is one of Yale’s weakest — fits into the University’s plans for increased globalization, as outlined by Yale President Richard Levin in his inaugural speech.

For those less than thrilled by the decision, the reduction of the requirement for nonproficient students is evidence of an entirely opposite mentality.

Kamens said the changes were “unwise and unfortunate” in light of the increasing need for cultural understanding.

“It encourages an entirely American-centric view of the world,” graduate student and beginning Russian instructor Thomas Campbell said. “Four semesters is already not enough, especially in difficult minority languages.”

Campbell, as well as Dolgova and Kamens, said they believe the changes would be especially hard on the departments of smaller and more complex languages, in which most students begin with no prior instruction. These departments tend to have fewer staff members and resources than languages such as Spanish and French, and take longer to master.

Bailyn, however, said he thinks these departments would be affected the least, since students who take Chinese, Russian, Arabic or other difficult languages tend to be more serious about gaining proficiency.

“If you’re going to take Arabic or Korean or something like that, you’re going to be committed,” Bailyn said. “I think the vast majority will stick with it.”

Duval said he also thinks language enrollments will, on the whole, remain stable, since proficient students required to take languages will offset those who stop after three semesters. But he and Bailyn both said the consequences of the decision are, for now, unknown.

“I think there are a lot of unanswered questions that we are now going to have to answer,” Duval said. “There are a lot of uncertainties.”

Professors walk to an academic review meeting Nov. 6. where they voted to decrease the language requirement to three semesters, but to require all students to take one semester. Professors said they worry about these changes.
Zoe Pershing-Foley
Professors walk to an academic review meeting Nov. 6. where they voted to decrease the language requirement to three semesters, but to require all students to take one semester. Professors said they worry about these changes.

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