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.

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