A Comment on Shrinking Foreign Language Offerings

More people should join the campaign against the foreign language decline.  Here’s one such advocate, Jennifer Crystle, who published the following article in pbk.org, July 17, 2012.  

It’s common to hear our world referred to as small. However, with a surface area of over 500 million square kilometers and a population of over 7 billion people, our planet is certainly not small. With technology advancing at a record pace and our economy becoming more globalized, the distance between cultures is dwindling down to the space between a person and their Skype camera.  As our world shrinks, a new importance must be granted to our ability to communicate in other languages.

Phi Beta Kappa recognizes and defends the importance of language study. However, many universities’ decisions to cut language programs suggest that there are various leaders in the field of higher education who do not share that view.  In 2008, the University of Southern California said auf wiedersehen to its German program due to low student enrollment, a diminishing faculty, and an administration that didn’t consider foreign language a priority. When students and faculty protested, USC stood by the decision to cut the German major, but kept a minor to stifle the dissent.

Some drew attention to the increasing importance of Asian languages in international affairs to justify USC’s sudden cut to the German program, but a quick glance at the headlines should quell any reservations about the value of studying German. In a CBC News article, “Germany Key To Resolving European Debt Crisis,” Daniel Schwartz argued that Germany has become a central force in world economic affairs. That was a year ago. Since then there is little media discussion of the debt crisis among European nations and the financial concerns of the EU that doesn’t place Germany in the most vital role. Why, then, are major universities agreeing to downsize German, the language spoken by the newest European powerhouse?

A closer look at economic policy and educational funding may provide some answers as to why language programs are suffering more than most other departments at American universities.

While President Obama’s overall budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year features a 2.5 percent increase in Education Department spending, the Title XI program, which helps to support over 150 National Resource Centers (NRCs) dedicated to the study of less commonly taught languages, endured a 40 percent reduction of its funds. In his 2013 budget announcement back in February, Obama announced that Title XI will receive a small increase of $1.7 million. 

Not all universities are affected by Title XI, and, certainly, the decision to cut and condense language programs is ultimately their own. As quoted in Stan Katz’s blog post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Wie Gehts, USC?,” it was USC’s Dean Howard Gillman who ruled to close the “stand-alone” German department. Despite his continued support of giving students a “global perspective,” in his memo to the faculty, he argued that the university’s best option would be to “integrate the field of study into a broader enterprise.”  

After learning of these cuts, I became curious about the history of language programs at my own university, The University of Mary Washington. As a small liberal arts college with just over 4,000 students, the Modern Foreign Languages department is not as large as USC’s; however, to my dismay, I learned that we, too, have experienced cuts to our language programs over the years. Associate Dean and Professor of Spanish Ana Chichester noted that the university’s decision to cut the Russian program in the 90s was seen by faculty as both “premature” and “short-sighted.” While Mary Washington has been able to hold on to the German major, Chichester acknowledged that “the German program has recently been cut to one tenured faculty despite the fact that we have close to two dozen majors in German.”

It would seem that large universities and small colleges alike are withdrawing support for traditional language programs. As it stands now, we have a backwards correlation concerning language study. As the distance between cultures decreases, we need to aspire to anincrease in college language offerings across the United States.
Jennifer Crystle is a senior at The University of Mary Washington majoring in English and Spanish. Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.



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