Profs question language reqs.

As administrators gear up to undertake a semester-long review of the Committee on Yale College Education’s 2003 curricular overhaul, some language faculty are hoping they will take a closer look at the newly implemented language requirements.

The three-semester language requirement, first instated for the class of 2009, leads students to drop intermediate language courses before taking the second-semester class, language professors told the News this week. Instead, students complete only the one-year beginning course in the language and the first semester of the intermediate course. In general, the language faculty also said, the new language requirement — which increased the number of students required to take language — is still insufficient because three semesters is not enough time to gain proficiency in a foreign language.

The 2003 curricular overhaul introduced a new set of language requirements for all Yale College students, beginning with the class of 2009. But some language professors worry that the new policy does not encourage proficiency.
Calgary Leveen
The 2003 curricular overhaul introduced a new set of language requirements for all Yale College students, beginning with the class of 2009. But some language professors worry that the new policy does not encourage proficiency.

But Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and other members of the CYCE have said that the goal of the revised language requirement is to encourage all students to pursue some University-level language study while still leaving them with flexibility in their schedules.

“It was probably one of the most seriously debated issues among the CYCE,” Salovey said. “We did not want to discourage students from achieving proficiency in at least one additional language.”

“The idea was you would always have to continue to travel further,” he added, referring to the Committee’s commitment to post-high school language study. “Under the old requirement that wasn’t true.”

The new language requirements — put forth as part of the CYCE report, which also amended overall distributional requirements and called for the expansion of the freshman seminar program — changed the College’s language requirement in two ways. Under the old system, students had to take four semesters of a foreign language to demonstrate proficiency, but if a student came to Yale already skilled in a foreign language, they could opt out of the requirement completely. Now, only three semesters of a language are required to demonstrate proficiency, but all students are required to take at least one semester of a language in order to graduate, regardless of their high-school curriculum.

But, according to some language faculty, the new requirements have done more harm than good.

Assistant College Dean and German professor William Whobrey said the German Languages and Literatures department has seen approximately a 30 percent dropout rate for students from the first semester to the second semester of intermediate German for both this academic year and last year — a trend he attributes to the change in language requirements.

Russian lector Irina Dolgova said although she has not seen a similar trend in her intermediate Russian course, she thinks the three-semester requirement is irresponsible because it gives students the false impression that they can become proficient in a language after just a year and a half of study.

“Three semesters is definitely not enough to go to Russia,” Dolgova said. “All study-abroad programs require four semesters of Russian. If they obey this language requirement scheme, they wouldn’t be able to compete. It’s not random that the four-semester requirement is accepted by most universities.”

She added, “The message is dangerous. I don’t want to be accountable for the idea that three semesters is enough to accomplish anything in foreign language.”

Dolgova said last year, three of her students, not a significant percentage of total enrollment, dropped intermediate Russian. Although she said they did so because they were not satisfied with their grades, the new requirements “allowed them to make this decision” — one that would not have been available to them before the overhaul.

Acting Arabic-language coordinator Beatrice Gruendler said Yale and all American universities have a responsibility to emphasize language study because students in the United States come to college already lagging behind their counterparts overseas.

“This is something universities have to remedy and enable young people to go abroad,” Gruendler said. “What is two years of a foreign language? It is nothing out of four years of undergraduate education.”

But Salovey said, during the CYCE meetings, faculty members in other departments — particularly in the sciences and engineering — raised concerns that a four-course language requirement would be a significant burden on students trying to complete majors with heavy course loads, especially because beginning and intermediate language courses are worth 1.5 credits each.

Language Study Committee member Steven Fraade, the director of undergraduate studies for the religious studies department, said the committee plans to start gathering information regarding the attrition trend, but currently does not have even anecdotal information confirming the lectors’ complaints. Fraade said the three-semester requirement does not even apply to most students.

“Most students are still going to take four semesters,” Fraade said. “The stereotype that somehow language study is being cut back is incorrect.”

Fraade added that despite the three-semester rule, the new curriculum has boosted language departments’ profiles on campus through more monetary support from the Provost’s Office and “a steady flow of new languages” being added to the curriculum.

This semester, Salovey said, the Dean’s Office and the Office of Institutional Research will begin a comprehensive review of the new curriculum and its effects. Through focus groups, student surveys and transcript comparisons between this year’s seniors and juniors, Salovey said administrators hope to grasp what patterns in student education created by the new curriculum. Although large-scale changes will probably not be made, Salovey said the findings could justify small adjustments.

But language faculty expressed pessimism that language requirements could be brought up to what they consider appropriate standards.

“It’s too late to implement,” Dolgova said.

“It’s hard to move the clock back,” Gruendler said, although she added she would like to see the issue examined at a curricular review.

Salovey said he plans to hold discussions about the review’s results at a Yale College faculty meeting during the fall 2008 semester.


  • Eli

    Although undoubtedly language is an important skill, there are other important things to be learned in college, like genetics, English literature, and calculus. I think that rather than ask the question, "Is language important?" the question really should be, "Is language the most important thing a student can do with three or four semesters' worth of study?" As much as the language department wishes to assert that four semesters "is nothing" to spend on foreign language, it's not "nothing" to someone who has the goal of, say, going to medical school.

    Research shows that the best time to learn language is very early. Language is important, but an extra semester or two in college isn't going to make a huge difference for most students (and few can claim proficiency after 3 or 4 or 5 semesters) whereas an extra semester of economics might be the only exposure a student has to the entire discipline.

  • Anonymous

    That's funny, these are exactly the same objections to the change that language teachers raised back when the CYCE report first appeared.

    Poster 1, you're describing this in unneccessarily hyperbolic terms. Having one language class each semester for half of your college years hardly is prohibitive of exploring other topics at great depth. Plenty of my students in 4th semester language were successfully building schedules for pre-med.

    The question is whether a language requirement makes sense if it doesn't require achieving any particularly relevant level of proficiency. Upper-level courses in all the language departments require at least that fourth semester course, and yet Yale College has made precisely that one critical semester optional.

  • Old dude

    A few observations on Eli's comments:

    1. American med schools love applicants who speak Spanish, especially "medical" Spanish. Volunteer to translate in a hospital and you'll have a great asset for your applications. Not to mention, it helps other people (remember them?)

    2a. Short of studying abroad, language is a great way to gain exposure to other cultures (remember them?)

    2b. When studying abroad, it helps to know the basics of the language. Immersion will teach you the rest.

    3. It sounds like what you're saying is "People ought to be able to place out of the language requirement, since they've already learned another language prior to college." Can't they?

  • Mark

    Let's face it. Compulsory language studies is a thing of the past and this is reflected in its national decline. In an anglophone world, there is simply no need for it. It should be made entirely optional. Global awareness, believe it or not, can be acquired better in English than in some poorly taught second language with silly games and nanny teachers.

  • RC

    It's clearly true that three semesters is not enough for proficiency. Neither, as it seems the language teachers are willing to admit, is four. Four is just enough to let you do more language. But if the student genuinely does not want to learn that language, then what's the point in making him or her stay? She's not going to use the language, and he's not going to continue study, so this whole focus on continuing study is pointless. It's as though the language teachers think the students are going to try to do things with the language that they won't be ready for. They're not. If they are dropping the class, they probably don't care enough to use it.

  • Anonymous

    To post #4
    Your comments are somewhat culturally arrogant. To understand a culture, you must know its language. While English is an almost universal language, it is a language used for business and technical aspects, not for the own culture of most countries.
    Not wanting to learn another language reflects the cultural arrogance and ethnocentrism so pervasive in the United States.
    Besides, learning another language is very beneficial as it makes you more competitive in the job market and it allows you to understand the views of other people OUTSIDE the US - it's a whole world out there..

  • Anonymous

    To poster #4,
    Your comment is a clear example of cultural arrogance. While English is almost a universal language, it is used for business and technical aspects, not for culture. If you want to understand the world and be globally aware, learning another language is a great way to start - even having a basic knowledge of another language will help you a lot.
    It is necessary for people in the US to learn about the world out there and to be humble. Leave such cultural arrogance and ethnocentrism behind and learn another language. Most people outside the US are bilingual - and it's a big world outside the US borders.
    Besides, knowing another language makes you more competitive in the job market. If you are not doing it for cultural awareness, do it for a better job.

  • Liz

    I disagree. There is no cultural arrogance if one chooses to study other cultures through available English translations. In fact, it makes you more aware that you can never fully grasp another culture as if you were an actual native speaker. That's the problem with language study. It is of poor quality and most instructors and senior professors do not have adequate proficiency unless they are native speakers. Check out the German department where most people speak poor German, including the graduate students and profs. Why drill it into us when they can barely master it.

  • Anonymous

    As a current German student, I have to correct you: all of the L1/L2 teachers are native speakers. Their German is hardly 'poor'.

  • Yale Grad

    I'm not a fan of people being forced to study anything unless a very real need is identified. Taking an intro or intermediate language at Yale is indeed a crushing burden that, if required for two whole years, really does dramatically impact the breadth of courses one can take. While you get 1.5 credits per semester, any language student can tell you that it's really 2 credits of work.

    As language study is actually a tenet of any liberal arts education, is there some way that the burden might be reduced, perhaps with 1 credit versions of the course? 4 semesters of language the way it is taught now is just too much to require, even if it is necessary for a solid foundation. I would say that Yale should only require a significant exposure.

  • Anonymous

    Why don't we employ mathematics and science requirements in the same fashion? There are plenty of people walking around who are very ignorant about very basic science. I do understand and appreciate the importance of language; I like learning it. However, there are many important subjects in the world. And I simply do not understand the justification for the precedence of language the way it is taught (EVERY DAY) at this University. No other courses are taught in this fashion.

    As far as medical schools are concerned, indeed, they will appreciate it if the applicant is very proficient in Spanish or other languages. Yet even if the applicant is fluent, but has not had enough preparation in the basic sciences due to time constraints etc., good luck with helping the patients to heal when there is a crisis of some sort. But at least you can say you "don't know what to do" in their own language---that'll be really helpful for everyone involved…