Trustees | General Education

College-level foreign language programs are essential

BUFFALO NEWS   |  December 19, 2010 by Michael Poliakoff

“If you speak three languages, you’re trilingual; if you speak two, you’re bilingual; and if you speak only one language, you’re American.” So goes the saying.

We pay a dear price in national security and diplomacy for our ignorance of foreign languages. That lesson of the 1958 best seller “The Ugly American” is as true today as it was half a century ago. Foreign language study is the foundation for humanistic study and true multicultural understanding. And foreign language instruction prepares students to navigate the volatile global job market.

As CIA Director Leon Panetta recently pointed out, higher education’s weak standards are the cause of America’s linguistic ignorance. In the survey of core curricula, only one in three of leading institutions required even intermediate level foreign language proficiency. Hardly any required a fourth semester of language study. In the words of Panetta: “We need to get back to mandating language training as a requirement for graduating from college.”

Panetta’s message comes just when colleges are running in the wrong direction. Several schools have announced plans to reduce or eliminate their foreign language requirement. Others cut departments and majors. The University of Southern California announced the end of its German major in 2008. Louisiana State jettisoned its majors in German and Latin and terminated instruction in other languages. Flagship universities in Maine and Nevada are following suit. And the University at Albany has announced the termination of majors in French, Italian, Russian and Classical Studies.

Foreign language programs typically have low enrollments and few majors. They are academically demanding, requiring disciplined acquisition of linguistic skills. They don’t have the attraction of trendier programs or plain, old gut courses. In a world where credit-hour generation counts for survival, they perish.

Colleges have two good strategies to use. The first, and most important, is to develop consortia of small programs. As language programs crash around the nation, some prevail together. In Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, four campuses use interactive video to share faculty in French, German, Spanish and Russian: the collaboration freed resources for new courses in Arabic and Chinese. This works at the graduate level, too. Eight University of North Carolina campuses formed a German Studies Consortium that shares resources. Duke University and University of North Carolina formed a public-private partnership for a joint graduate program in German. Every college campus does not need a full complement of senior professors to service the students majoring in foreign languages. Through resource sharing, they can ensure rich opportunities for the prudent students who recognize the value of advanced language study. Such cost-effective collaboration makes far better sense than terminating a language major.

The second strategy is to eliminate fluff courses. As foreign language programs go to the guillotine, cash-strapped college administrators rarely consider that some popular programs contribute only minimally to students’ cognitive growth. Recent studies by the Social Science Research Council note that two favorite academic programs, teacher education and communication, do little to increase students’ overall problem-solving abilities. Swear off educational “junk food.” Use funds for college priorities.

Few institutions can continue to offer their own programs in every academic discipline. Raising students’ tuition in lieu of reducing the budget is not an ethically defensible option. But strong academic leadership can restructure foreign language programs cost-effectively, ensuring the resources for intermediate level language proficiency for every undergraduate, and, through collaboration with peer institutions, the opportunity for students to complete a rich language major.


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