Foreign language class changes spark debate over effectiveness

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A $3 million budget cut is forcing the College of Liberal Arts to offer more intensive foreign language courses, leaving some students and department chairs concerned about the measure’s effectiveness and students in other colleges worried about potential foreign language requirement reforms.

Foreign language requirements vary between majors and within departments, but the typical program prior to the 2010-11 academic year required two five-hour courses and two three-hour courses. Departments began to transition to a more intensive program last year in order to reduce costs. Beginning in the fall, the Department of French and Italian will only allow six-hour classes, condensing four semesters of work into two.

The Department of Middle Eastern Studies has been offering intensive Arabic courses for years, said department chair Kristen Brustad. Arabic is serving as a model for other languages moving toward intensive learning, she said.

“It’s more effective for any language, not just Arabic,” Brustad said. “Intensive language teaching is really focused on having students spend more time in class during the week.”

Daniela Bini, French and Italian department chair, said the Department of Middle Eastern Studies has smaller classrooms and students who are much more motivated to learn Arabic and Urdu than students in her department.

“They are extremely motivated because those are difficult languages,” Bini said. “If we had smaller classrooms, I would certainly be more confident.”

Peter Hess, Germanic studies department chair, said it is unlikely an intensive sequence will bring better results.

Germanic studies will continue to offer a program requiring two five-hour courses and one six-hour course, he said.

“There appears to be a general consensus among researchers that time spent on-task is the best predictor for a positive outcome in the language classroom. The more time language-learners spend with the target language, the better they master the language,” Hess said.

Language is an artifact, and this is why it is imperative to include foreign language as an integral part of academics, he said. Hess believes different languages give students fresh perspective on their own language and culture.

“Students need time to process this information, and I fear that reducing instructional time will diminish its impact,” he said.

Multimedia journalism junior Brionne Griffin said she finished her foreign language requirement with one of the six-hour French courses and said she had to attend a lecture every day of the week for two hours.

“The workload was very intense and I had to plan my other courses around this class,” she said.

Griffin said after taking the course she was able to retain vocabulary but not grammar, which takes time and repetition.

“When you’re trying to process at a more rapid speed, it’s hard to keep up with everything that’s thrown at you,” Griffin said. “It was a lot of balls to juggle.”

French sophomore Chase Crook said intensive courses are a disservice to students and they often turn students off from even taking a language.

“Liberal Arts’ main goal is to educate students in different subjects and you are not going to be fully educated if you have to rush through a subject,” Crook said.

Printed on 7/25/2011 as: Modification of language requirements sparks debate