Foreign Language Programs under Fire

Valerie Clemens for The Cavalier, April 11, 2011:

Schools across the nation have been cutting traditional foreign language programs, while enrollment of students studying those languages has been climbing, according to two recent studies on the subject. Arabic, Chinese, Korean and American Sign Language have displayed a significantly increasing presence in higher education curricula, according to a report by the Modern Language Association.

Despite growing numbers of interested students, the economic recession, which has left many institutions faced with budget concerns, might explain why many universities have decided to cut funding toward foreign language programs with lower student interest and fewer faculty, according to a study conducted by Steven Brint, sociology professor and associate dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of California at Riverside.

A national trend
Many universities throughout the country have faced decisions to cut foreign language programs.

The University at Albany, State University of New York, which is part of the greater SUNY system, was asked to eliminate $34 million from its budget during the past three years, said Jean-Francois Briere, professor of French studies.

Last October, the university’s president announced that five degree programs would be terminated: French, Russian, Italian, classics and theater. “All degrees [were] deactivated,” Briere said. Spanish, the most studied foreign language at Albany, was spared, Briere said.

The decision to end the French program was particularly controversial, Briere said. “French is the second most commonly taught foreign language [in the world] after English,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment for our university that if you want to get a degree in foreign language you have a choice between the Asian languages and Spanish.”

The decision gave way to major student initiatives and national campaigns, Briere said. After many efforts at Albany, and a petition signed by 13,200 people in more than 30 different countries, the president decided to re-establish minors in all the above programs, but did not reinstate majors, Briere said.

Despite these minor victories, Briere noted an underlying tension.

“It is like the university is trying to push the faculty to leave by reducing their student body to minors, with no majors and graduate students,” he said. “It’s pressuring the faculty to leave on their own … but they have no intention of leaving.”

Louisiana State University also recently faced massive state budget cuts, said Tom DiNapoli, associate professor of German. Three hundred instructors were fired and class sizes increased dramatically in all departments, DiNapoli said. The foreign languages were the departments most affected by the financial cuts.

“Every language was lost except Spanish,” he said. “We lost four complete language programs: Portuguese, Swahili, Russian and Japanese. We [also] lost two degree programs — [now, students can] only have a minor in German, and classics lost their B.A.”

DiNapoli said he doesn’t see a bright future for those degrees and programs that were cut.

“We were doing a good job but they were picking on some of the smaller programs when there were budget crises,” he said.

Foreign language at the University
Reflecting a national trend, students at the University are still showing a large interest in studying and majoring in Spanish, said Gustavo Pellon, director of undergraduate studies for the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese department.

Incidentally, the demand for faculty also increased, but the department is having trouble meeting it. “Student demand is great, so courses are huge. [We] really haven’t been able to increase our faculty, but the dean’s office is being very favorable to us,” Pellon said. “[The] problem is the economic downturn. [College] Dean [Meredith] Woo really understands the situation, but she is very limited in how she can help us.”

As of February, the Spanish department had about 350 majors and 14 faculty members, Pellon said. He added that the department was ranked first in the country by the National Research Council, tied with Yale. “We’re an overachiever and we’ve been making do with very little,” he said.

The French department, meanwhile, has witnessed an increase in interested students every year, Chair Cheryl Kreuger said in an email.

“Many of these students choose French because they want to have an edge in international business, or because they hope to pursue careers in government,” Kreuger said. “To be competitive in the world now, Americans must be fluent in several languages.”

Despite the increase in student interest — which calls for a greater demand in resources that many departments lack — some faculty members don’t seem worried about the future of the University’s language departments.

“As long as our foreign language and culture departments continue to receive robust support from the University, Romance languages will continue to thrive at U.Va.,” Assoc. French Prof. Janet Horne said in an email.

An alternative way of thinking
The National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland works with schools, policy makers and global leaders to increase foreign language education across the U.S. “The U.S. really suffers severely [from] a world language education gap,” NFLC Deputy Director Shuhan Wang said.

Compared to other countries, American students are lagging in their foreign language development skills, Wang said.

“In most other countries [it is] mandatory [to] at least have some proficiency in [another] language,” she said. “Universities are viewing language-learning ability as some kind of service or luxury so that usually they’ll be the first thing to go. It doesn’t make sense to cut programs like that; these are the basic tools [for a] globalized world.’

Brint, who conducted the study at the University of California at Riverside, shared a similar attitude.

“We often talk about globalization and being prepared for a global world, yet we find the courses that prepare students for that are being cut,” he said. “Language courses are a great example of that. There is a tension between how we see the world becoming more integrated and the opportunity for students to study.”

By cutting programs, universities are compromising the long-term benefits of their graduates for the short-term benefit: saving money, Wang said.

“[They] pay attention to the short-term gains by cutting some programs, but in the meantime we actually lose the big picture,” she said. “If someone does study a foreign language for two years in high school and two years in college, that’s not going to help them to have higher language proficiency. It’s cumulative.”

Post-collegiate appeal
Considering this globalized world, students are learning to speak foreign languages to market themselves in today’s increasingly competitive job market, Wang said.

Barbara Hampton, associate director for employer services at University Career Services, said she does “work with a number of employers that are seeking students who have foreign language skills.”

She added that the government generally has the highest demand for multilingual employees. Although employers often provide job language training, “it’s helpful for [students] to pursue those languages [at the undergraduate level] if they have time,” she said.

For students pursuing graduate studies, meanwhile, a demonstrated interest in foreign languages can pad the resume. “Whenever a candidate [for admission] has fluency or training in one or more languages, or has demonstrated a special affinity for it by traveling, living or working in a country, it’s a huge plus,” Jennifer Wicke, director of graduate studies of the English department, said in an email, “It means the person is intellectually curious, has another window of knowledge and perspective on the world that can only come from another language and has a heightened understanding of the richness and complexity of all languages, including English.”

Tom Fitch, associate Commerce dean for career services, said in business and commerce, knowing a foreign language can make a difference.

“Business is global and it will only make a candidate more marketable in job growth,” he said.

A new beginning
The MLA conducts a regular survey of undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages other than English. In the fall of 2009, it found that “Arabic registered the largest percentage growth at U.S. colleges and universities since the previous MLA report.” The number of students in Arabic language courses between 2006 and 2009 grew 46.3 percent. From the previous study, it had grown 126.5 percent.

Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and American Sign Language also showed sharp increases in enrollment. So although resources for Romance languages may be dwindling, there appears to be a bright future for those interested in studying other langauges.

DiNapoli said through all the language cuts at LSU, the “only two languages that have been strengthened are Chinese and Arabic; [they are] such important languages in the world today.”


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