Languages: Situation Unimproved

Last spring, a faculty committee met to revise a language requirement generally considered obsolete. But instead of making changes to bring the standards more into line with the recommendations of language department experts, the committee established criteria that are even more arbitrary and less realistic than the ones they replaced.

For the new requirements introduce another element, not previously considered, time. Under the new plan, if a student cannot pass the placement test and has had less than two years of language in secondary school, he must take two full years of languages. On the other hand, if he has taken at least two years in high school, he needs only one year here. But that one year can include a semester reviewing the elementary aspects of the language, and another semester of an intermediate course. Thus, while a student could satisfy the old requirement by passing a full year of a C level course, he can now do it by passing only a half year.

The requirement can still be satisfied by passing the placement test, but that was true under the old plan. The objectionable part of the revised standards is its reasoning: It equates proficiency in a subject with the length of time it is studied. The purpose of a language requirement is to make sure that everyone who receives a degree can read a foreign language. The new requirement implies that this skill will automatically come with either one or two years' exposure. Now, with time the basis, a student can pass the requirement with the equivalent of a year and a half of the most elementary courses. This is particularly true in German, where the student can fulfill the requirement with just a year of German R, little more than a review of elementary German.

The solution here is not merely to reinstate the old requirements. If the faculty had felt these were sufficient, it would not have called for the changes. Instead, the ideas underlying the teaching of languages should be re-examined. If the University is to have a language requirement, the language departments must raise the level of their elementary courses to that of courses offered in other fields. These elementary and intermediate language courses necessarily involve a large amount of purely mechanical memory work, which should be done in secondary school. If every candidate for admission had to take three years of a foreign language before coming to Harvard, he would be able to avoid the elementary courses entirely. Intermediate courses, in turn, could be improved to give the students a greater understanding of the history and culture of the countries. However, if an otherwise qualified applicant has not taken any languages, he should be required to begin one as an extra, non-credit course, and then follow his classmates into the intermediate level course.