The Challenges Confronting Language Education


The study of foreign languages in American higher education generally amounts to studious avoidance. Except for language majors, students stay away in droves. A typical survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and the Higher Education Research Institute concluded that less than half of 42,000 students sampled across the nation graduated with a foreign language course to their credit, while nearly 80 percent had at least a mathematics course. At Colorado College, 65 percent of this year's graduates have at least one foreign language class on their transcript.

The perception is that language study is difficult, particularly in the college's Block Plan where the brief, intensive course format makes incremental language retention a challenge. "We basically cut out all the assimilation time with our Block Plan," says Richard Koc, associate professor of German. "By the time students get into the second week, they are so overloaded with things they really need to have memorized that they're already on the point of burning out." Since introductory language courses require two consecutive blocks, "most of them feel that it's a very difficult seven weeks," he says.

In 1996, the foreign language programs at the college underwent an external review when David Maxwell, director of the National Foreign Language Center, visited the campus. An invitation followed to join 15 other institutions in the Language Mission Project. This two-year institutional self-study, conducted through questionnaires distributed to all language blocks and through interviews with faculty and administrators, was in many respects encouraging. "We learned that we were doing a great job," says Paheau, "that the students were very satisfied with our language programs and that the goals of the students corresponded almost perfectly with the goals of the programs and the faculty."

This may simply mean, however, that language students are getting what they want from the curriculum. While 65 percent of this year's graduates have at least one foreign language class on their transcript, difficulties remain in encouraging students across the curriculum to recognize the importance of language study, and in marshaling active support from faculty members to include languages more integrally in the general coursework. So the Language Mission Project suggested various pilot experiments to accomplish this. The principal suggestions that emerged were the reinstatement of the departmental language minor, the inclusion of an optional language component across the curriculum, and a blanket language requirement in the humanities division.

This last is a discussion that re-emerges perennially among the humanities faculty. Few are opposed in principle. Still, observes Dean Timothy Fuller, a strong proponent of a language requirement, "There is both enthusiasm and wariness, simultaneously. I don't think the faculty would approve it abstractly without having some assurance that it's doable. We haven't quite reached the consensus on the necessity of doing this."

Nor even consensus on why. "For some people," Fuller says, "the practical argument would be a big argument. In a case like this, you have to welcome all of the different arguments that favor it. We can't depend only on that group of people who will say that this is an intrinsically good thing to do. I recognize that to get a large, complicated group of people with different academic interests to agree on something like this, they have to be able to see it in their own terms."

Last fall, classics professor Owen Cramer took the proposal to the humanities division and "there was more enthusiasm than I have seen in recent years." Cramer's proposal, which he concedes would have to be modified by departments, allows three options for fulfilling the requirement. A student could satisfy it with four years of a single language in high school, by placing in the lowest third-year level on a language placement test administered by the college, or by studying two years of a single language here - four blocks.

"Any department ought to have the right to formulate its own language requirement," Cramer insists. "Music's requirement is keyed to studying music. . . if you're singing opera or lieder, a little bit of French, a little German and a little Italian are better than a lot of one and the absence of the others." A division-wide requirement, he believes, would "make it clear the humanities is serious. Humanities in the absence of something like that becomes total amateurism."

"The language departments are ready for this to happen," Cramer believes. "They would like to have their curriculum better understood in the college, and they have seen their way to staffing the enrollments that the kind of requirement we're sketching would bring. We can calibrate that requirement in such a way that it will not suddenly bring 200 new bodies into Spanish 101, swamping the department, obliterating all their upper level courses, and making them teach nothing but eight blocks of 101 and 201."

Reconfigurations in language interest and resulting disparities in enrollment are one obstacle to ready adoption of the requirement. "Some people say that instituting a language requirement is instituting a Spanish requirement de facto," Paheau remarks. "The departmental opinion of the foreign language requirement is split," cautions Sal Bizzarro, acting chair of Romance languages and professor of Spanish. "There are those who would like it. We in Spanish are overstressed with large classes, so we don't look forward to that kind of solution."

"We always felt that students who were studying language were there because they wanted to be and therefore they put in much more effort to succeed. If we go to a requirement, they will be there grudgingly - the class atmosphere is no longer a convivial place where everybody is really interested in speaking and learning the language. But we understand why schools want to have a requirement," he acknowledges. "We know that languages are important." Maxwell also cautions in his report, "If use of some level of foreign language skills is not sufficiently integrated into the major in all departments in the division, students would probably see the requirement as somewhat arbitrary."

Most departments in the division include statements in the college catalog strongly recommending proficiency in a language. These encouragements are often, in fact, ignored by the departments, says Richard Koc, who is also acting director of the Language Mission Project. There is what he calls a certain "territoriality" among departments, which often perceive, alongside the real importance of language proficiency, the need to fill a quota of majors. Judith Genova, chair of the philosophy department, concedes that this may be the case. "For the most part," she says, "everyone in the department stands behind a language requirement and we wish we had one."

But her department dropped its language requirement several years ago upon the recommendation of an external review team. "Philosophy was the only department among cognate departments such as religion, political science, sociology, with a language requirement. The reviewers agreed that it might be a factor in why the department was getting no more than 10 majors a year." So even though she "completely supports" a humanities language requirement and an all-college language requirement, it was clear that "we were putting philosophy at a disadvantage. Since we've abandoned it, last year we had 21 majors. This year we have 17."

"Right now, the philosophy major is 12 units," Genova notes. "The concern is that majors are becoming more and more professionalized, taking up more and more of the students' time. I don't think 12 units is a lot for a major, but I wouldn't go to 14. So I would definitely cut back on the units to include the language. And I have no problem doing that. If a language deepens the major - and, of course, we would always attach the study of a language to the major - I like things to work together, to build and interlock in certain ways, so that you have a responsible body of knowledge."

Kate Leonard is an assistant professor in the fine arts department, one department that has retained the language requirement - only natural, she thinks, since "there is a cognate skill or ability in expressing ideas clearly in a foreign language and in a formal visual language." But she also considers language education integral to a broader liberal arts mission. "You cannot create brilliant scientists, or brilliant artists, without them having read literature, being exposed to the humanities in general. So if it's through a language requirement, that's just an extension of the liberal education and the language requirement the department sees as the core of a liberal education."

"The rigor of learning a foreign language translates into a type of student that the art department wants to have," she says. "Learning a foreign language develops a certain empathy. We're asking students to extend beyond themselves, or their familiar experience, which is what, hopefully, every class they take at CC will do - force them to get outside of themselves. The language requirement is a model for that idea. I can't imagine giving someone a greater gift than another language."

Even the act of speaking is a social act and so can such enhance the equally social process of learning. "It's almost a bonding," Leonard observes. "They've all had to do their language requirement. Also, they'll be sitting down here in studio class and some of them will be talking in Spanish, practicing their language. They all have a language and a shared experience."

One major obstacle to the passage of the divisional requirement has been a prevailing skepticism in the largest of the humanities departments, English. Some would say that the department, specializing in the lingua franca anyway, is narrowly viewing a foreign language requirement as an unnecessary encumbrance upon its own programs. Says chairman Barry Sarchett, "I don't think I'm in opposition, in principle, to language requirements. I'd be very happy if we were all like Europeans and knew five different languages. So I support language proficiency on the part of American students, who are notorious for their English-only lives."

But the plan is not clear about what the point of it all is, exactly: "It's very difficult to require a lot of students to become really proficient," he remarks. "We can easily require introductory courses, but do students really become proficient in a language just at that level?"

The English department shares, with most strong undergraduate humanities programs, those growing "cultural and social pressures for professionalization as early as possible." Consequently, Sarchett says, "I'm skeptical of any additional requirements being asked of our students. I've seen increasing pressure from departments and programs to add requirements. At the same time we've decreased the number of courses students take, from the nine-block to the eight-block year. Students have had to become much more interested simply in getting courses that fulfill requirements."

"And there is the tactical problem of just how to do it," he says. "I don't know where we're going to get the people to staff those courses. And I'd hate to see Colorado College become part of the national trend towards hiring part-time faculty who are not tenurable, not really a part of the community."

Just where the discussion stands now is moot. The notion of a language requirement has a strong proponent in Fuller, who insists that "if the college is committed to internationalizing its curriculum, to intercultural initiatives, to enhancing the study of foreign language, if we really believe that that's important for an educated person to do, then we should require it. What I'm hoping for is that fairly soon we will have a serious debate among the faculty as a whole. I want them to come to a resolution."

Francoise Paheau is not hopeful. "The Language Mission Project, although it was a very nice idea when it started, has now, I believe, lost its momentum. I wish we had a better story to tell." But perhaps, in the final analysis, Sarchett has put his finger on it most aptly: "I see this discussion going like all academic discussions go, that is, they never stop," he muses. "It will aways be a question, it will always be open. I don't see any reason to think we won't be discussing this as long as Colorado College exists."

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