Praise for UC Berkeley’s Foreign Language Expansion

Recently, UC Berkeley committed at least half a million dollars in funding to expand its foreign language departments, at a time when most other universities slashed theirs. Hopefully, other universities will learn from UCB’s example.

The following comments about Berkeley’s decision are by Rick Kern in The Daily Californian, March 5, 2011:

The UC Berkeley administration’s recent allocation of more than half a million dollars to expand numerous foreign language courses is a bright moment, and stands in stark defiance of the defeatism that has crippled many universities in these times of shrinking budgets. Hats off to the members of our administration for their visionary academic leadership!

Ever since the current financial crisis began, universities across the country have faced critical strategic decisions. A number of them have made the unfortunate choice of reducing funding for foreign language teaching, sometimes dismantling whole degree programs – CSU Fullerton, the State University of New York at Albany, Louisiana State University, the University of Nevada, Reno and Winona State University in Minnesota are just some of the institutions where these causalities have occured. And the U.S. is not alone: Radical changes in funding schemes in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe have led to cutbacks in languages and the humanities in general.

Ironically, these cuts are coming at a time when foreign language enrollments are higher than ever. A recent report by the Modern Language Association found that foreign language course enrollments increased by 6.6 percent between fall of 2006 and fall of 2009 and reached a new high in fall of 2009, with some languages showing dramatic increases (Arabic, for example, was up 46.3 percent). The MLA enrollment figures will undoubtedly drop the next time the survey is done in 2012, but it won’t be because students are any less interested in languages.

UC Berkeley is an internationally-minded campus. Some 60 modern and ancient languages are taught here, and Berkeley students can select from the more than 200 study abroad programs offered each year. Maintaining international expertise cannot possibly be achieved without offering instruction in a wide variety of languages and cultures. It is crucial to remember that with dwindling resources in high schools, our students have fewer and fewer language options to choose from before coming to this campus. Moreover, heritage language learners often do not have any opportunity to formally study their family’s language until they get to college. It’s therefore essential that we maintain as broad a range of language offerings as possible.

This breadth of offerings could be threatened if our administrators took a bean-counting attitude and funded courses strictly on the basis of demand. Clearly, we need to meet the demand in high-growth languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and so on, but not at the expense of lesser-demand languages like Bulgarian, Catalan or Finnish, which are no less vital to our overall language ecology. The question that will continue to face the administration is how many languages can be supported with relatively low enrollments.

In the case of less commonly taught languages, we may need to think about demand on a systemwide, not campus, level. To date, UC Berkeley and UCLA have most often provided distance learning classes in languages not taught on other campuses. And this, once again, puts a special responsibility on Berkeley to continue offering as wide an array of languages as possible. We are back to the question of what makes a university “world class.” There may be relatively few students enrolled in introductory Telugu, but this is certainly not a language to be dropped – it is the language of some 80 million speakers and is ranked 13th in the Ethnologue list of most-spoken languages. It is apparently only taught at three American universities, and it is therefore a real mark of distinction for Berkeley to offer it.

We are lucky to have administrators who understand that funding language teaching is not a zero-sum game and that you can’t simply offer where demand is high and eliminate where demand is low. Who knows what world event will suddenly make a currently low-demand language a high-demand one? Most of all, what unique lens on the world is lost for our students when a language and culture is no longer taught?

We are also lucky to have some of the finest language faculty and graduate student instructors to be found anywhere. They are energetic, creative and absolutely dedicated to their students’ learning. The fact that Berkeley’s language courses are so popular is largely due to their talent and devotion.

We at the Berkeley Language Center are very grateful for the administration’s ongoing strong support and we look forward to continuing to work with language instructors and students, providing them with resources to enhance their language teaching and learning experience.

All of us who love languages have much to celebrate.


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