IMAM: Overhaul the language requirement

The language department does not give people the skills they need

With the exception of Echols scholars and students who come in with academic credit, all undergraduate students in the College must complete a variety of area requirements. These requirements are meant to ensure that students receive a more holistic and well-rounded education by exposing themselves to multiple areas of study. The foreign language requirement, however, generally fails to equip students with sufficient practical knowledge, and so it should either be restructured to allow for more flexibility or to become more rigorous in material.

My attitude against the current foreign language requirement does not come from a lack of interest in foreign languages. Rather, it comes from my appreciation of languages, perhaps due to a sentimental view of them, but also because of how useful a skill I consider them to be. Unfortunately, the requirement to complete a language through the 2020 level hardly provides students with the ability to use that language.

The first problem I have with the foreign language requirement is that, in the way the courses fulfilling it (from a language’s 1010 through 2020 level) are currently taught, it fails to provide students in those courses with any substantial knowledge. This first became apparent to me when I took Spanish 2020 during my first semester here, which I had placed into through my SAT II score. While I suspected the course would be easier for me since I had spent two summers in Spain since taking that test, I was shocked by the course’s lack of rigor. For a class labelled “Advanced Intermediate Spanish,” it seemed odd that on the first day I encountered students unable to form the sentence, “Do you have a brother?” The class proceeded to consist solely of busywork, such as online time-consuming homework and pointless projects that never enhanced my and my peers’ knowledge. While this example is one of personal experience, many conversations I’ve had with peers confirm that this feeling of not learning anything in lower level language classes is a common one.

The least the College could do when addressing how to better serve students with this requirement is to make the courses more rigorous. If the College is going to require students who lack any desire to study languages to fill up their schedules with courses to fill this requirement rather than courses that actually suit their interests, it should at least provide some level of competence in that language in return. This is a tall order, but one way to do this would be to have classes structured so that there is a greater focus on immersion, in which students actually practice the language with one another. Of course, those who truly have no desire to learn a language won’t walk away ready to put that knowledge to use, but they may as well have spent that time and money that could have been put towards other classes having learned something.

If no adjustment can be made in this respect, especially due to constraining factors such as teaching staff sizes, the College should consider allowing for more flexibility as to how the foreign language requirement is met. The area requirements, such as those in natural science, mathematics, social science and humanities allow students to choose from a multitude of classes and shape their schedule to their liking. While the foreign language requirement is filed under the competency requirements, it fails to provide any competency, and should therefore be restructured to allow students the chance to try out different languages should they desire. This would help account for students who wish to explore a new language and culture, or who simply lack an inclination for languages. A way to provide this flexibility would be to provide students unable to demonstrate a certain level of fluency in a foreign language with the option of either completing a language through the 2020 level or by taking a certain number of semesters of languages. These semesters could be made up of different languages, such as Spanish 2010 followed by French 1010. This may seem counterintuitive given my complaints about our language courses not providing competency. However, there is inherent value in discovering areas of study that one may write off as being unnecessary. This suggestion is merely meant as a response to improving students’ experiences with foreign languages if we are unable to improve those courses given whatever constraints language departments may face.

I realize there are many problems and points of view to consider when addressing how we can reform this requirement to better serve students. However, our current system forces those with no interest in languages to spend their time on them without providing the valuable skill of communicating with others in their native tongue in return. While I do believe a foreign language requirement is valuable and should remain in place, the College could at least make this requirement more worthwhile and in line with students’ various interests and abilities by either allowing students more flexibility in how they can fulfill the requirement or actually teaching the material beyond pointless tasks meant to keep them busy.

Alyssa Imam is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.imam@cavalierdaily.com.

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