Ad Hoc General Education Committee

Second Languages in General Education at CCSU

Written By: Robert Wolff - Sep• 06•11

*Posted for Matt Ciscel (Department of English), ciscelm@ccsu.edu

One of the most glaring inadequacies of the current Gen Ed program at CCSU is the zero in the “0-6 credits” required under Skill Area III (Foreign Language Proficiency).  Foreign language proficiency appears explicitly as a relevant outcome under the second objective of the Gen Ed program: “to develop and enhance global awareness, civic responsibility, appreciation of cultural diversity, and historical awareness.”  Yet, about 3 out of 4 undergraduates are allowed to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language by providing evidence of three or more years of foreign language study in high school, reducing the development and enhancement of those skills at CCSU to zero.  I will argue here that we must enhance this component of Gen Ed.

The development of bilingualism through second or foreign language study is a crucial component of general education for young people around the world.  In the United States, a pervasive culture of monolingualism undermines the maintenance of minority and immigrant languages and the motivation of English-speakers to pursue proficiency in a second language.  However, this culture serves our citizens well in neither their educational development nor in the increasingly global economy and world.  Educated bilingualism has been shown in numerous studies to have a wide range of benefits, including enhanced critical thinking skills, greater facility with the native (English) language, broader cultural awareness and tolerance, and improved job opportunities and career mobility (see actfl.org and cal.org for summaries and links to studies).

The international focus at CCSU is another strong reason to enhance the second or foreign language component of Gen Ed.  While it is possible to get an international focus in English only (since English is both international in its use and global in its prestige), a student from a university with an international focus should ideally aim for the bilingualism (or trilingualism) that is the norm for educated people in every other part of the world.  Although bilingual education begins in elementary school in many other parts of the world, we cannot hope to support this skill at lower levels of education if we continue to dodge this key element of an international education at the higher education level.  If we require it, primary and secondary schools are more likely to feel the pressure to maintain or enhance their own programs.

A final argument for a stronger second or foreign language component in Gen Ed is that some of our peer and sister institutions are already out ahead of us in this area.  Although foreign language study remains marginal or non-existent in many Gen Ed programs, stronger foreign language components than ours exist at numerous institutions that serve richly multilingual urban areas similar to Central Connecticut (CUNY Brooklyn College, Montclair State University, and William Paterson University).  Also, SCSU, the sister university most like us in size and mission, has a requirement based on actual language proficiency that requires approximately four semesters for a BA and two semesters for a BS.  This comparison alone puts CCSU far behind its closest peer and highlights the weakness of our claim to an international specialization.

So, what would an ideal second or foreign language component in the revised Gen Ed look like?  It would be based on proficiency rather than seat-time and would not allow our students to zero out the requirement with seat-time in high school (with the exception of AP credit).  It would require that substantial university resources be shifted to the Modern Language Department, no matter how unpalatable or unworkable that might seem to some.  It would require that all students be tested for second language proficiency when entering the university and then take at least one course to enhance existing skills or at least two courses to begin to develop new ones.  It would be unpopular with some students, but it would broaden the horizons of most and improve the quality of general education at this university immensely.

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One Comment

  1. Oh, come now… the glaring inadequacy isn’t quite so strong if you’ve got a pair of the rose-tinted shades of American arrogance on-hand! But actually, now that you point-out the phrase “develop and enhance,” I am feeling a bit gypped, as a student who somehow managed to receive her “college-level” language education in high school.

    I think, however idealistic it might sound, it would be nice to have an institution encouraging those of us who fumbled through French and Spanish to… brush up, dig deep for the numbers beyond ten, develop more intelligent conversation than the “voulez-vous couchez avec moi”* and cuss words that are so easy to remember.

    I guess in olden times, the point of learning other languages was so we could, perhaps, read work out of French and German academic journals (which some graduate programs actually still require… archaic simpletons!), make sense of it, not reinvent the wheel if the Italians already had a decent one rolling… but if that isn’t already translated into English for us, we can always hit-up Google Translate, right? Heck, why are we even going to school, hasn’t someone programmed a computer to run the world, feed us, clean us and play sitcoms for us all day? Sheesh.

    I almost think it is ridiculous to list justifications for poking and prodding and forcing the poor, innocent students to tolerate language education and perhaps receive some of those “benefits, including enhanced critical thinking skills, greater facility with the native (English) language, broader cultural awareness and tolerance, and improved job opportunities and career mobility.” But it’s an almost. And it’s only because, as you pointed out, the facts are there. You can lead a horde to a classroom, but you can’t make them drink the Kool-Aid. Especially not the red kind… oh, not the red kind! I think CCSU, like many public institutions, is faced with a question they must answer before moving forward: is the purpose of the university to educate, or is it to absorb unemployment by babysitting kids who are not academically inclined?

    As far as proficiency rather than seat-time being the determiner of whether or not a student is adequately qualified in a language… please, extend that to every discipline. It’s a great idea and, honestly, that’s what matters. Test everyone coming in, test everyone coming out, if nobody is doing substantially better… there’s a problem on our rocket ship… or all of our astronauts are lost in space. Higher-level students must defend their own knowledge… is undergrad just a repeat of high school? University is, to an extent, voluntary. If we’re attending on a voluntary basis, then we should not be surprised when we are expected to actually retain what we learn.

    I agree with putting more resources into the modern languages department.

    Give the language department lower reserve enrollment and lower caps. While that might seem unfairly in-favor of language professors, it makes some amount of sense. A language class is part lecture, part seminar, part practicum… it should not be counted as merely a lecture and be stuffed-up with 20-30 students in the first level. A language class probably shouldn’t have more than a dozen students in it, but an enrollment of three should be high enough for a course to run as itself (even if it requires some funny accounting to make sure professors are paid fairly). Switching the second level of a language to an independent study and registering the CRN as a canceled class on the schedule does not look good; it discourages students from enrolling in the future because “the second half never runs.” Ideally, there would be at least four sections of each level of each language running each semester at set times (MW AM/PM, TR AM/PM), but let’s not get carried away, here. With sequence courses, it is important that if it is put on the schedule, it stays on the schedule, to show that it was offered, even if nobody registers.

    Language labs. I know that Southern has one. A number of the community colleges have some. Housatonic spent about $250k (grant money) on fifty seats between two labs. Language courses at these schools are (supposed to be) three hours of lecture and one hour of lab, which students either clock independently or at a scheduled time. Although I think the lab is not amazingly better than normal vis-à-vis communication during a standard class, I think that having language maintenance software for students who aren’t taking a language in a particular semester or who are more advanced than the school has offerings for would be a good investment.

    I definitely think that this is one part of general education that can’t be nixed and ought to be beefed-up (or tofu-ed-up, for the veggies). And, as an aside, it’s encouraging to see a professor arguing in favor of something beyond his own department.

    * I’m not going to explain what “voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” means, but tons of Americans recognize it. A lot of Americans also know “parlez-vous français?” The latter question is simple, “You speak French?” I have a little story that is… hm… somewhat amusing, but reinforces the idea that learning a second language is not the worst of all possible things to do with one’s time. A couple of years ago, I went to another school to sign-up for a microbiology course. Because my General Biology was completed through a CLEP, I had to get the head of the Bio. Dept. to stare at my transcript and give me permission to join the class. One of the first things on my transcript is my French CLEP credit, which prompted the department chair to remark, “Ah! Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” I shook my head and turned away, biting my tongue. My mother (who majored in French) couldn’t control her laughter. Talk about awkward… we hadn’t even had coffee together!

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