On Thursday, Nov. 6, Yale professors voted, after some debate, to adopt the language provisions of the 2003 Report on Yale College Education. According to Dean Brodhead, changing the language requirement is designed “to make foreign language learning a more integral part of a student’s college education” (“Profs endorse major reforms” 11/7).
The major component of this change is the reduction of the course requirement for students who arrive without language competence from four semesters to three. Unfortunately, increasing the language requirement for students already proficient in a foreign language does not make up for the overall decrease in proficiency for the rest of the student body, further undercutting the value of language learning as part of a liberal arts education.
The cuts are designed to allow to students in course-intensive majors to take more elective classes and experience a more “liberal” education. The marginal loss of simply reducing the number of credits required for those majors is, however, minimal compared to the loss in potential language ability students of all majors will experience when taking only three semesters of foreign language. Language professors have argued the cognitive nature of language learning means it is in that fourth semester that most languages finally “click,” locking in the learning of the previous three and making the endeavor worthwhile.
In the coming months, professors from all language departments will have to devise ways to overcome just this problem. Thankfully, the faculty also voted to form committees to oversee the implementation of the reforms, and there are several ways that they might succeed in integrating language learning into the rest of Yale’s curriculum. While a few classes already have this option, there are still dozens of history lecture courses that could effectively conduct some sections in a foreign language. Making such sections available and highlighting those lectures in a separate section of the Blue Book would promote actual academic use of languages students have supposedly become “competent” in, allowing students to maintain their language skills and possibly fulfill the extra semester of language requirement without limiting students to courses in the language departments.
Yale could promote seminars in areas such as philosophy or international relations with the option of doing reading and coursework in foreign languages, instructing professors to take into account when grading the greater difficulty of non-native language learners doing academic work after only three semesters of formal instruction. Also attaching an extra half-credit to such seminars would solve the leftover credit problem the Report mentions while providing incentive to take the harder class.
Even if the committee felt that four semesters of language study are too many, there is a better way to ensure that languages become an integral part of a liberal arts education than compressing four standard semesters into three. Nearly all language classes stress all four areas of language learning: reading, writing, speaking and oral understanding. If tracks were made available that focused only on reading and some writing ability for languages like French and German (much as is already the situation with Latin), in only three semesters, students would be able to read primary documents relevant to international relations and the sciences, respectively.
Currently, Yale’s language curriculum is neither effectively coordinated nor standardized. Any new committees established to form new policies to implement the Report’s recommendation should re-evaluate some basic issues facing languages at Yale. The current standard of “competence at an intermediate level” is already incredibly lenient and inconsistent simply because some languages are harder for native English speakers to learn. Committees should also question some of the requirement’s inherent Eurocentrism: a written knowledge of Latin or Ancient Greek supposedly satisfies the requirement’s stated purpose of promoting an understanding of foreign cultures and the way languages work, but just having oral fluency in Ashante Twi or Mandarin fails to meet that goal, even though they are more useful in a globalized world.
Language proficiency is an important part of a liberal arts education: writers in political science and the humanities still quote passages in French without translating them, assuming that educated men and women should have reading comprehension in the erstwhile language of academia. In turn, the only way to balance cuts in the foreign language requirement for some students is to make earnest and innovative attempts to integrate foreign languages into the rest of the Yale curriculum.
Alfredo Silva is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.