Lost in translation — Unnecessary limitations on La Salle’s language courses

Commentary

Alina Snopkowski, Editor

There is a serious desire from students at La Salle to learn foreign languages. I had heard about it in passing through my time taking Russian classes, preparing for Foreign Language Awareness Week and otherwise advertising for language classes whenever I could — students would mention that “I would’ve liked to take German, but they didn’t offer it until after my freshman year and I didn’t see the point in starting it later,” or “I took French in high school and loved it but I could never fit it into my schedule,” or “I saw they used to offer Japanese but it doesn’t seem like they have it anymore,” and on and on and on. But how many students actually want to take foreign languages? How can we figure that out?

Support of interest

Throughout Foreign Language Awareness Week at the end of March, students were able to vote on languages that they would like to learn at La Salle. At events throughout the week, slips of paper were available where students could write their name, major, email and pick, in a perfect world free of scheduling conflicts and other circumstances, what language(s) they’d like to learn from a list of languages that have been offered at La Salle in the past (plus a space to list others). Here’s the results from that non-scientific, self-selection-biased, small-sample-sized poll:

All languages on the list have a number of interested students that meets or, in almost all cases (sorry, German), exceeds the 10-student minimum class size requirement.

When broken down by grade level, the highest interest is among current first-year students, which bodes well for the possibility of having students that continue to be able to take foreign language classes before they graduate. Many respondents to this poll indicated that they want to learn more than one language — an average of 1.73 for current juniors, 1.79 for freshmen, and 2.12 for sophomores.

Students who were at Foreign Language Week events were already more likely to be interested in languages, and therefore these results don’t represent the university as a whole. But, the poll results probably greatly underreport the desire for foreign language classes, because you had to physically be at one of these events to cast your vote, and students who were unable to attend or didn’t know about the events but still want to take language classes had no way of being counted. The point is, this poll as well as anecdotal evidence of “I really wanted to take French, but it was never offered when I had space in my schedule” and “I would’ve taken German if I could minor in it” and “I do Japanese on Duolingo and really want to take it here” show that there are many students who are interested in taking foreign language classes here.

So why aren’t they?

There is no university-wide foreign language requirement, although a couple of majors have their own versions. For example, the International Relations (IR) major includes a requirement for “four courses in Foreign Languages” and the program description section explains that “It requires four semesters of a language chosen by the student (including, for example, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Italian and others).” Note that it does not specify that it has to be the same language — that will come up again later. 

Economics and International Studies (ECI) requires “three courses in a single foreign language” with the goal that students in that major “will demonstrate reasonable proficiency in a foreign language.” The page devoted to the Department of Global Languages, Literatures and Perspectives shows that majors and minors are offered in Spanish, but for other languages (French, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian), courses are only available as electives.

Maybe students just aren’t interested in learning those other languages. Spanish is the most popular, and therefore there are plenty of students who will register for Spanish language and literature courses. But Russian? Italian? Japanese?

When I talked to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Pamela Barnett, she said that, “I would love to see more students taking languages,” but explained that most languages are only offered every other year because of the university-wide policy that classes need 10 students signed up to run. This “scheduling rotation” was put in place because language courses would fill up in the first year but not at higher levels. Barnett said that the 10-student requirement was created because of the “learning that comes from diversity,” and explained that “I don’t want to cancel classes, but they also cannot run with only five people.” “Before the scheduling rotation,” she said, “often we would not have enough students even in the first year. And that meant even smaller numbers at higher levels. When we started to run every other year, the classes became larger and that’s when you get the learning from diversity.”

It’s a sort of chicken and egg problem, then — students aren’t signing up to take these classes, but these classes aren’t being offered. These classes might be offered if there was enough interest in them, but how can a student be interested in German 301 if they can’t even take German 101? These classes have to exist and develop for both the students’ and administration’s sakes.

Well, here’s one of the problems. There are too many entry-level classes offered in some languages, particularly Spanish, and too few beginner classes offered in others. According to Chair of the Global Languages Department, Dr. Vicki Ketz, most students who come into La Salle wanting to take Spanish classes already have some prior knowledge of Spanish from high school or earlier, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to start at the 101 level. The problem is, Spanish professors are told to offer multiple sections of Spanish 101 in the fall semester, even though, in reality, there’s a need for just one or maybe two sections at that level. 

What’s really needed are multiple sections of 102 and 201 in the fall, when new students are coming in, but those classes aren’t offered as often. The schedule is clogged up with classes that aren’t needed and there’s less space for ones that are. But how could the administration know how many classes are needed at certain levels?

We used to have a language placement test. It was optional and, if reinstated, it should probably stay optional, but my guess is that incoming freshmen would elect to take it, because they don’t want to start learning Spanish (or any other language) from scratch if they could instead just take a quick quiz so they’re put into a class that matches the level they’re at. Reinstating the language placement tests would provide the administration with the information they need to make informed decisions on how many sections of each class, and which levels, should be offered.

The placement test could also show that there’s demand for higher-level classes in languages besides Spanish — the very languages that are barely offered because of the impression that if we can’t scrounge up 10 students for French 101, how on earth would we be able to get that many for 102 and 201? Placement tests could show, for languages like French and German that are often offered in high schools, that there are actually more students who have some knowledge of that language than those who are starting from square one and need the 100-level courses. 

If an incoming freshman took several years of German in high school and wants to continue it at La Salle, but only sees German 101 offered, why would they take a class in basic topics they already know? But by not signing up for German 101 in the fall, that appears to show the administration that there’s a lack of interest in learning German altogether, and not the reality that there is an interest, just for higher levels. The chicken and egg are back. 

Repeat for French or Italian or any other language that’s commonly offered in high schools. We probably need to offer more upper-level language courses, not fewer, in languages like these, but the lack of quality placement tests and lack of students signing up for 100-level classes in languages they already have experience in sends the wrong message to those who make those decisions.

The issue is not that we do not have qualified, talented professors to teach these classes. The issue is not that we do not have interested, motivated students who want to take these classes. The issue is that students who want to take these language courses are unable to, that professors are forced to shut down classes when there’s not a certain number of students registered for them, that the administration does not know how many students come into La Salle with prior knowledge in a language and that certain classes are only offered at one time and, given the choice between taking a language class and fulfilling a major requirement, pretty much every student would pick the latter because there’s no way to fit both into their schedule.

This last issue has an obvious solution — coordinate scheduling between the language department and other departments that often see conflicts and also interest, particularly the departments that consistently see the most overlap (if I had to guess, I’d say political science). That way, a student won’t have to choose between Japanese 101 and Intro to Microeconomics. They can get more of what they want out of their education.

The scheduling conflict appears in other ways, too. For students in the Honors Program, a certain number of Honors electives are required for graduation and, especially in sophomore and junior years, fitting these electives into a schedule is prioritized over just about everything besides major-specific classes. Add in the required Honors Triple classes freshman year (History, Philosophy and English) and there are not many slots left to get started on a language.

If you want to learn a language you don’t have prior experience with, you really ought to get started as soon as you can. I was lucky my freshman year — Russian 101 was offered in the fall, and, with some adjusting around my Honors Triple and econ classes, I was able to take it. But, I also know that a lot of that was just good luck. If freshman year and sophomore year are full of major classes and Honors electives so that language classes don’t fit or aren’t offered that school year altogether, what can be done to fix that problem?

The lack of space in Honors students’ schedules applies to more than just language courses. The Department of Global Languages, Literatures and Perspectives offers much more than straight language courses. The department also teaches, for example, classes in literature from different parts of the world, centered around a theme such as a particular time period or social topic. Are these courses cross-listed, as a variety of courses from most other disciplines are, with Honors courses to make them better available to students in the Honors program? No.

Courses from the Department of Global Languages, Literatures and Perspectives have not, at least in the past four years, been offered as Honors electives. Allowing cross-listing between the Global Languages electives and Honors electives will bring more students into these electives as Honors students would be able to take classes that would be very difficult for them to find space for otherwise. In addition, by taking Honors electives through the Global Languages Department, Honors students might then find an interest they wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise, and come back to the department to take foreign language courses.

Here’s another suggestion: reduce the minimum student requirement for foreign language classes. Changing these requirements might seem like a Band-Aid solution — sure, the seven students who want to take French 101 this year can take it, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of them are going to graduate, and a couple more won’t be able to put it into their schedules next year, and if a class can’t run at the 100 level, then there’s almost no way it’ll work at the 200 level (barring the reinstatement of the placement test, which could show enough students who test into higher levels).

I’m not saying a class should exist if only two people want to take it, but the professors teaching these language classes should be able to give input on what the minimum number of students in a class should be for it to make sense to hold it. Language involves dialogue and it helps to learn a language with others — but how many others? Would four students in a class be enough for some language courses? Six? Should it really be 10? That should be up to the professors of these classes to decide, as they know the dynamics of teaching a foreign language to a group.

Allowing smaller language classes also helps fulfill the requirements for certain majors — for example, the course requirements for the IR major. By allowing smaller classes to run, those four required language classes could be all within the same language.

But, as it stands, IR just requires four courses of a language. But let’s say you come in undecided and make that your major sophomore year, or you pick it up as a second major sometime after your freshman year. You want to learn German to meet the IR language requirement, but the intro classes are only offered every other year, and it’ll be next year before it happens again. Now you’re stuck with a choice — take a language you’re not as interested in to try to get four semesters of the same language and have some sort of proficiency in it, or take two semesters of something else now and take two semesters of German next year. It still fulfills the IR requirements, but it doesn’t really mean you’ll have a high level of ability in those languages and therefore doesn’t fulfill the point of having the language requirement in an IR major.

Allowing smaller language classes to run could also increase the likelihood that more students want to take those classes in the future as word of mouth and free advertising follows — I told all my friends, foes and other companions they should be taking Russian if they could. Adding the ability to get a minor in these other languages could also increase enrollment in these less-offered languages. It’s true that the skills you gain from studying a language don’t depend on if your official transcript lists them as a minor  — if you can speak Italian, you can speak Italian, irrespective of if you officially have a “real” minor in Italian or not — but the fact that it’s impossible to minor in any language besides Spanish is pretty disheartening.

One of my friends said that, although they took a language in high school and considered continuing it here, they’d rather take six courses from a program that would show up on their transcript, not six courses in one that wouldn’t. Another friend explained that “I really wanted to take Italian, but didn’t because I couldn’t minor in it.” Adding minors in these other languages would show that La Salle is committed to helping students learn a foreign language.

This last point is particularly important, as a quick search of some other universities in the area (Temple, St. Joe’s, Drexel and UPenn) reveals that Temple offers majors and minors in German Language and Cultural Studies, Chinese, French, Italian and Spanish, and minors in Portuguese and Arabic. St. Joes has majors and minors in Italian and Spanish, a major in Francophone Studies, and minors in Chinese Language and Culture and German. Drexel provides minors in Arabic, French, Italian Studies, Japanese and Spanish. UPenn has majors and minors in Chinese and Japanese, majors in French and Francophone Studies, Russian and East European Studies, Italian Studies and German and a minor in Korean. By only offering a major and minor in Spanish, La Salle is not nearly as appealing to incoming students who want to study other languages.

Here’s another possible solution, one that would probably take a lot of logistical legwork to figure out and a lot of paperwork to implement, but would certainly have far-reaching and long-term benefits: a foreign language requirement for most, if not all, majors.

It would be difficult to find a field of study that would not benefit from knowledge of a foreign language. A case can be made for adding a foreign language requirement to just about any major offered at La Salle, some easier to justify than others — international business, for some reason, does not have a foreign language requirement despite having ‘international’ in the name itself — and it’s pretty easy to emphasize the increased job and research prospects that would come along with speaking another language if your major is something else business-related, or political science, or history. But why should a biology major learn another language? If you’re studying math, what’s the point of taking language classes?

An alumnus of La Salle’s Global Language Department explained it like this:

“In the sciences, there was a period when mathematics and chemistry majors had to take a second language, as did biology majors who were not medical school bound. Why? To advance in their careers, mathematicians and scientists needed to be able to keep abreast of the most recent research, which included that done outside of the U.S., much of which was not translated into English. The same logic also applied to other fields as well. Those seeking advanced degrees in economics, political science and sociology who wanted to go to a top-tier graduate program needed proficiency in a second language to complete their M.A. and/or Ph.D. requirements.”

“We need to re-look our position on foreign languages,” they continued, “not simply because they open otherwise closed doors to careers, but more because not allowing students to take the courses in the languages they choose hurts the students’ prospects for succeeding in graduate schools as well. Most reputable graduate programs require their M.A. and Ph.D. candidates to pass a proficiency exam in a language other than English.”

Another alumna, Bianca Abbate, ’21, echoed these statements. “The importance of foreign language education cannot be understated,” she explained, “knowing foreign languages is not an accessory. It’s a practical and marketable skill that opens doors for people. La Salle does a disservice to its students when it fails to recognize that.”

I don’t think the provost, dean, admissions department, registrar, Honors Program or any other department or office at this university is malicious or actively working against students as they try to learn a foreign language. I doubt some of them even know all the different layers to these situations. But I do think that the changes that should be made need to be initiated by these groups. There are a lot of issues, complications and poorly-handled situations at play here, but there are a lot of solutions to them, too. 

La Salle University: you want your students to be outward-looking, global citizens, who work with and for others to fight injustice and improve the world. Foreign language skills are an invaluable aid in pursuing these goals — make the study of foreign languages possible.

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