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Professors Debate Strengthening Language Requirement

By Charles G. Kels

This coming semester, a committee of Faculty members will examine the language requirement at the College with an eye toward beefing it up--but as yet, the priorities of the changes are unclear.

Several leading language professors say the average Harvard student needs more exposure to a foreign language, but the professors cannot reach a consensus on just how to achieve that goal.

Gregory Nagy, Jones professor of classical Greek literature, brought the issue of the language requirement to the floor at the May 20 Faculty meeting on the Core.

He says discourse is necessary among Faculty members so they can transcend their differences and create a "united front" to bolster Harvard's language requirements.

"The wording of my motion is presented in the broadest possible terms, reflecting the common interests of the chairs and heads of foreign language programs at Harvard," Nagy wrote to several of his colleagues.

Nagy received unanimous approval from the Faculty for his proposal that "the Educational Policy Committee review the current language requirement for undergraduates and make a preliminary report on this matter to the Faculty no later than the December 1997 Faculty Meeting."

Nagy says he has no exact scheme for how to expand the language curriculum for every student.

"Basically, I'd just like to have more," Nagy says. "I think everybody is culturally disadvantaged--and more than that, impoverished--if there is not enough training on languages."

He says he wants every student to move beyond translation and grammar into "linguistic reasoning" and culture, calling language "the cornerstone of a Harvard education."

"You can't get at cultural diversity through translation alone," Nagy says, adding that he wants to provide students with "real cultural literacy."

Although Harvard professors of language are nearly unanimous in their desire for students to study languages longer, the Faculty simultaneously passed a motion to look into reducing the total number of undergraduate requirements.

This has created a situation that Professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture Ali S. Asani calls "a very delicate balance."

"My feeling is that there are pros and cons of both," Asani says. "One year of language doesn't give somebody sufficient competency. But on the other hand, I realize that undergraduates have a lot of other requirements to fulfill."

How that tension is resolved will affect the curricular life of every incoming student.

Current Requirements

While language professors agree foreign language is an essential component of a Harvard education, they disagree on how to make that subject more accessible in a format that is acceptable to both students and Faculty.

Professor of Greek and Latin Richard F. Thomas, who seconded Nagy's motion at the Faculty meeting, suggests increasing the minimum placement exam score for passing out of the language requirement.

"A number of us feel getting the present minimum score doesn't show excellence in that language," Thomas says.

Mary M. Farbood '97, who passed out of the language requirement as a first-year and took German A this year as an elective, says she would support this proposal.

"I am in favor of raising the minimum score," Farbood said. "I got a 560 on a language achievement as a high school senior and passed out of the Harvard requirement. That's ridiculous. Anyone can get a 560."

However, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Mary M. Gaylord, who also seconded Nagy's motion, said more substantive reform is needed.

"I'm not ready to conclude that simply raising the levels of scores will accomplish anything meaningful," she said. "We need creative discussion, not requirements. I'm not simply a proponent of just hiking the level of scores."

Nagy says he supports further cultural immersion, but cannot specifically endorse eliminating or toughening the exemption policy.

"It would be a shame to exempt a student out of a language requirement because of what one did in high school and not follow through with immersing yourself in that culture," Nagy says.

Jay M. Harris, Wolfson professor of Jewish studies, has another vision, which he describes as a personal, not departmental, stance.

"I certainly think we should have a minimum of four semesters of language, or the equivalent," Harris says. "Of course, that would only be possible by being looked at within larger curricular changes."

Nagy compares the effort to re-examine the language program with the recent movement to strengthen the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement, which was unanimously endorsed by the Faculty at the May 20 meeting.

"We understand the need for strengthening education in the realm of quantitative reasoning, but we also recognize the need for linguistic reasoning," he says.

Nagy says he believes that by enrolling students in a language course they would not otherwise take, the language departments will be able to inspire them to take further courses in that subject.

"My goal in elementary language courses is for students to gain an intellectual hunger for understanding the language better by taking advanced courses," he says.

Michael S. Flier, Potebnja professor of Ukrainian philology, voices a similar sentiment.

"We should not think about the number of courses required in beginning a discussion about the appreciation of foreign languages and cultures," Flier says. "We hope that students will want to continue studying languages."

But language professors were not willing to specify how they plan to enroll students into those elementary courses without creating a requirement onerous to undergraduates.

"It all makes a lot of sense," Nagy says. "It's just a matter of how we say it."

Another Requirement?

Language professors say they are well aware of the perils of adding yet another commitment to students' already crowded curricula.

"We discussed enhancement," says Judith G. Frommer, professor of the practice and director of Language Programs in Romance Languages. "The question is, how can we improve the undergraduate education, not make it more difficult?"

"Very few Faculty members really want an increase in 'seat time' or test scores," she adds.

Nagy says he is wary of strengthening the language requirement because that might add another cumbersome element to students' schedules.

"I definitely don't want another 'Oh my God' course," he says. "I don't want to throw another group of scared freshman into an elementary language course."

Thomas, however, says the Faculty should remember the fact that there is already a language requirement in place.

"The question is how to insure a result that is intellectually desirable without impeding another result or goal," he says.

According to the Handbook for Students, the Harvard language requirement can currently be fulfilled in one of five ways: earning a minimum score of 600 on an appropriate SATII Achievement test; earning a minimum score of three on an appropriate Advanced Placement test; earning a passing score as determined by the department on a placement examination; obtaining a waiver if one's native language is not English and if one is proficient in both that language and English; or passing with a letter grade two half-courses of instruction in one language at Harvard during the first year of residence.

Other Schools

Language professors say they agree the current Harvard requirement is weak and pales in comparison with other comparable schools.

"As the language requirement is, one can satisfy that one-year requirement by making the grade of D minus," Flier says.

Yale requires that each student who has not passed out of the language requirement take two full years of a foreign language or complete a second-year level language course. SATII Achievement tests are not accepted for the purpose of exemption.

"If you take a second-year language at Yale, you do have functional capability in that language," says William J. Mahota, associate professor of Slavic languages at Yale. "I think that only one year will not serve you well in the future. I don't think after one year anybody can be functional in another culture."

Princeton requires undergraduates to take three semesters of Spanish, French or Italian or four semesters of German, Latin or a non-European language.

In order to be exempted from the Princeton language requirement, a student must obtain a score of four on the AP or 740 on the Achievement exam, fully 140 points higher than the Harvard cut-off level.

"To me, it seems students cannot really learn a language in one year," says Fiorenza A. Wineapple, senior lecturer in Italian at Princeton. "The students that don't like languages will suffer through one year of language, and the students who excel at languages will not benefit because they will not get enough opportunity to learn that language fully."

But Wineapple warns Harvard language professors not to act too rashly in making the language requirement more stringent. "I'm not convinced more is better all the time," she says.

According to one foreign language administrator at Dartmouth University, students there must take three quarter-terms of a foreign language unless they score a 690 on the Achievement or a four on the AP exam.

Moreover, Dartmouth language students must go to either three or four one-hour "drill sessions" every week in addition to their regular language classes.

Despite more stringent requirements elsewhere, Harvard language professors say they are not convinced that strengthening the language requirement here is the proper way to place the College on par with other Ivies.

"Whether simply raising the language requirement would meet our goal is highly questionable," says Professor of Chinese History Peter K. Bol. "To teach all students a language so they would never forget it would probably require more time than can be expected. To raise the requirements of students who are there against their will is not what any language teacher wants."

Thomas says the language requirement now "will probably not change greatly."

"I agree completely that one shouldn't simply lay on more requirements," Thomas says. "But the general universal belief among the College is that the language requirement is a good thing."

But students say they oppose increasing requirements.

Katherine J. Evans '97, a joint English and Music concentrator, passed out of the language requirement with the French Achievement test and took Italian towards her concentration as a junior.

"If I had been required to take it as a freshman, I would have resented it," Evans says. "In the general scheme of American life, I think we should all know foreign languages better, but I also think that people have different academic requirements and paths that don't always make that possible."

Farbood echoed the sentiments of manystudents: "If it was a requirement, they'd be making you do something. I've never been a fan of requirements."

Broadening the Core?

For the last four years, an informal consortium of directors of language instruction has been meeting regularly to discuss issues of language instruction."

On May 28, members of the consortium met with a number of department chairs in what Nagy referred to as a "Foreign Language Summit."

Flier termed the consensus at the summit "remarkable," but attendees said they were no closer to an exact plan.

"The fact that this meeting was held shows that consensus is possible," Frommer says.

One plan that appears to have widespread support among the Faculty is the notion of integrating courses taught in foreign languages into other concentrations and Core requirements so that they do not infringe on electives.

"It might be better to leave the language requirement as it is and then make it possible to fulfill the foreign cultures requirement by taking a second year language course," Asani says.

This concept might fit well into the Core reforms passed by the Faculty on May 20, which opened the possibility of non-introductory courses in the Core as well as recommending greater flexibility in determining what a Core course can be.

Thomas expresses a similar view: "There may be more creative ways of encouraging students to do language courses," he says. "If someone were a science major, there might be some curricular incentive to do an advanced French literature course."

For now, Faculty seem reluctant to stress concrete requirements, preferring instead to discuss the merits of an enriched language curriculum.

"I don't want to be part of telling students when to stop studying languages. I don't want to draw the top line," Gaylord says.

Nagy says that languages are important to study because they have a definite effect on people's lives.

"Language has given me a different life because I can see everything in the universe in a different way by immersing myself in languages," he says. "How will an extra year of elementary language improve one's mind? I would say that's just a start."

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