Monthly Archives: April 2010

Foreign Language Learning Promoted

Back when George Bush was president (which wasn’t too long ago), he and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced plans to boost foreign-language study in the US as a way to combat terrorism and promote “freedom and democracy.”  Bush and Rice (who was once the Provost of Stanford University and has a degree in Russian studies) argued that because Americans dislike learning foreign languages, a critical shortage has developed within the diplomatic and intelligence communities, putting Americans further at risk after 9/11.  Failure to be receptive to other languages and cultures has also, they argued, increased the perception of Americans as “culturally insensitive” and has led to a decline in the U.S. image around the world.  One of the program’s aim was to increase the number of students learning languages from kindergarten as well as  enhance the opportunities for undergraduates and graduates.

The plan to increase the study of foreign languages is a great one but how much has really been accomplished?  Whether a Republican or Democratic president advocates improvement in this field makes no difference.  The fact is, however, that not much seems to be happening to make the goal a reality.  Yes, the government initiated a program called “Startalk” to teach languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, and Chinese but these programs are still very limited for students and are offered generally for brief periods over the summer and at limited places.  When are we going to get serious about learning languages?!

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Business Needs Foreign Languages

Maybe some of you who read my blog think that foreign languages are just for students in secondary schools or universities who need them for credit to graduate and nothing more.  If that’s the case, then what I have to say now might surprise you.  If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that you shouldn’t take anything for granted and should always be prepared for a rainy day.  Well, that’s kind of what it’s like for foreign languages and business.  How are businessmen supposed to compete in a global market when they can’t speak the language of the country they are interested in investing?  Some of you might argue that it’s unnecessary because there are always locals who know English, have been schooled in the US or England, and can offer their services instead.  But  some countries expect businessmen to speak or at least understand the language of the country they want to do business with.  And American businessmen really should have some knowledge of the country’s history and cultural values in order for their venture to be successful.  You wouldn’t want to put a ribs restaurant, for example, in India (cows are sacred) or the Middle East (pork is forbidden).  I think you have to understand your customers and that means learning their language and having some idea of their values.  The “ugly American” doesn’t just apply to travelers but also to businesses that remain reluctant to adapt to the changing world.

An article I found from September 2007 supports what I’ve said:   “The . . . study went on to show that even though English is in the top position as the “lingua franca” for international business, there is also increasing demand for other languages. While around one quarter of the companies surveyed felt that they still needed to improve their English, a similar proportion felt the need to expand into German or French, with Spanish and Russian also featuring prominently in the ranking. Many companies – particularly large ones – also stressed their need for non-European languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Urdu, as they seek to expand into non-European markets.” If you’re interested in reading the entire article, here’s the link:  http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?aged=0&format=HTML&guiLanguage=en&language=EN&reference=IP/07/1368

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Benefits of Foreign Languages

A recent article in the Washington Post (“Why we need foreign-language classes in public schools”, December 1, 2009), written by a research associate for the Center for Applied Linguistic, mentioned that only fifteen percent of U.S. public elementary schools are teaching foreign languages but that other nations (including English-speaking ones) have made learning foreign languages a priority for their students starting at an early age.  The benefits in this kind of program, the author argued, are enormous.  For example, students who study foreign languages “outperform their monolingual peers on a wide range of academic achievement tests and experience cognitive benefits, such as increased problem-solving, creative, verbal and spatial abilities.”  Given that students in the U.S. are forced into taking standardized tests like the SAT and ACT for college entry, shouldn’t our school systems advocate for early foreign language training? Just a thought.   What do you think?

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Cutting Foreign Languages at Universities

Here are two recent articles about the budget cuts to foreign language departments at universities.  The immediate impact is being felt by the students and faculty but such cuts will have a drastic effect on their future plans.

1.  “Foreign Language Classes Silenced” posted by Sarah Rabot on September 25, 2009 from a blog called “The Little Rebellion”:

Many upper division language courses at SUNY New Paltz have been cancelled due to this year’s budget cuts. Most language classes are now only offered in two different levels and some have been canceled entirely.

This year the budget cuts have led to the cancellation of Arabic, Latin and Russian. Minimum class size is the primary reason many of these languages were taken away according to Elisa Davila, head of the Foreign Language Department. The class size for foreign language classes has always been 27 students, but the class size for special topic classes and upper division classes has increased from 15 to 20 last semester as part of the college’s budget cuts.

“Getting 15 students to take upper division classes was difficult,” said Davila. “Getting 20 students to take them is almost impossible, so many of the classes have been cancelled.”

For the more commonly taken languages, like Spanish, fewer classes were cancelled.

If students wish to take a less popular language for their major, they may find that only one or two levels of the course are being offered. In some cases, that language may have been eliminated altogether. Many students are being forced to find a replacement for their language class.

The cancellation of classes is not the only problem. Some classes, like the Intermediate Italian 2 class, are only offered in the spring semester.

Jamie Biglow, a double major in art history and history, is struggling to learn all of the languages necessary for her major. Some of the languages Biglow needs to take are only offered up to the intermediate level and some are not taught at all.

“The lack of language classes affects my future because I need [to be familiar with] several languages to be a successful art historian,” Biglow said. “Aside from Italian, I will also be taking French and I desperately need to take Latin, which New Paltz does not offer anymore.”

Davila said since the school is offering fewer courses with larger class sizes, students will be discouraged from taking languages and it will take them longer to graduate. She also said that having a large class size in a foreign language class is not educationally sound.

“There are two solutions to this problem,” Davila said. “We need more money to hire more teachers and we need to be able to offer more courses with smaller enrollments.”

2.  “Students, professors fight foreign language class cuts” from Daily Titan, March 1, 2010

Students and professors alike rallied in front of the humanities building at Cal State Fullerton on Thursday, Feb. 24 in an effort to raise awareness about classes — in particular, foreign language — that are being cut from the school.

The programs that are in danger of being discontinued are master’s and bachelor’s degrees in French; master’s, bachelor’s and minors in German; and a minor in Portuguese. If these programs are done away with, majors such as International business in French, German, and Portuguese will have to be canceled as well.

This serves as a major problem for students such as Brianna Zarlinga, who hopes to be able to graduate next spring as an International business major with an emphasis and minor in German.

“I plan on finishing my studies abroad in Germany because it is the only way to get the courses that I need in order to graduate with my major,” Zarlinga said.

Many students will be facing the same problem in terms of getting the necessary classes they need in order to graduate if these courses are cut.

Grad student Judy Nguyen, who came out in support of the Department of Modern Languages and Literature, feels for the students who will be affected if these programs are discontinued.

“I sympathize with the people who are majoring in these subjects because if they cancel the classes they won’t be able to graduate, and they are who will suffer the most,” Nguyen said.

Dr. Janet Eyring, the Chair of the Department of Modern Languages, also spoke at the rally about the misfortune of these classes being cut.

“We cannot let it happen and we must not let it happen”, said Eyring, “We are the target right now. When are we going to say no, stop, that’s enough?”

French Professor Helene Domon sees the discontinuance of these programs as a “tragedy for the CSUs.”

“We are mainly fighting the discontinuance of degrees, and over the past 10 years there have been over 100 graduates in French,” Domon said.

Zarlinga argued that if the course catalog would list 101 classes in these language classes, maybe more students would sign up.

“As a student, if you are interested in taking or beginning a language course and you go to the course catalog, the only courses you see offered are either the second beginning course or intermediate courses, not the first beginning course, which is what you need. ”

Zarlinga pleaded, “Let us prove ourselves, that there is interest.”

A number of students and professors expressed their opinions through words during the rally, but there were also students who expressed their views in other ways. The Association of Chinese Students took to the stage in a colorful performance where two dragons came out from the crowd to the beat of a drum and other students and supporters contributed by putting on an Arabic dance.

Andrew Delos Reyes, a Latin American studies major, took to the stage with his guitar and sang a song in Portuguese.

“Without Portuguese,” Delos Reyes said, “there will just be Spanish.”

Unity was shown between the students, professors, and people in the crowd that came out to support the rally by chanting all together, “We are family. French, German, and Portuguese.”

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Languages are critical to our needs

I love to learn languages!  Unfortunately, too many Americans don’t share my opinion.  They think that knowing English is sufficient but that’s myopic.  Why? Because in this global era, we need to expand our linguistic horizons.  Will we be like the biblical Tower of Babel with people unable to communicate with each other?  Can Americans continue to insist that the world learn English but Americans don’t need to do so?  The fact is that most Europeans learn a number of languages from elementary school onwards.  They share a continent that is home to many different nations, histories, and cultures and communicating is essential for getting along with each other.  Learning languages is second nature to them.  That’s not the case in American schools where language instruction is and  has been declining.  Someone might argue that  the U.S. shares borders with only two countries–Canada and Mexico — and so many of their citizens know English. Why then should we bother learning French or Spanish in school, or any other languages?  In this ongoing blog, I will be giving a number  of very good reasons why Americans need to broaden their linguistic horizons and how we can try to make some changes.

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“Learning a foreign language not only reveals how other societies think and feel, what they have experienced and value, and how they express themselves.  It also provides a cultural mirror in which we can more clearly see our own society.”  Edward Lee Gorsuch, retired Chancellor, University of Alaska, Anchorage

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