Occidental’s weak language component cheapens global education

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Author: Haley Gray

In spite of Occidental’s purported commitment to global and intercultural studies, Occidental is part of the majority of complacent institutions with under-prioritized foreign language programs. While commitment to maintaining quality foreign language programs is wavering across the nation, Occidental’s students must be held to higher standards of language proficiency, and the college must provide the support necessary for them to achieve it.

Occidental students are only required to achieve an inadequate 102 level of proficiency in a language. This means two semesters of a beginning language course with only three classroom hours per week – unless students are able to test out of this requirement entirely. In addition, emphasis is placed on reading and writing, and conversation courses, which allow just another two contact hours per week with a native speaker, are optional and not offered at every level or even for every language.

Send a student who has received this level of training in a language into a country that speaks it, and they will flounder. They will reinforce the stereotype that Americans, even those with a progressive, “global” education, are ignorant. This is the image of Occidental students that the college has deemed acceptable.

This must change.

For students who would like to go beyond an intermediate level – more than four semesters – options are limited to French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. It is worth noting that in languages that require learning an entirely new script, reaching an intermediate level means less in terms of students’ ability to converse than it does in languages with a familiar alphabet. Furthermore, students who would like to major in a language and dive deeper than mere proficiency, can only choose from French and Spanish.

The college is working fervently to build its reputation as a globally conscious institution. Through efforts like the “H2Oxy” theme and the sparkling new multi-million dollar McKinnon Family Center for Politics and Global Affairs, the college seems to be screaming, “Look at how much money we spend on being cosmopolitan!” Meanwhile, it seems to simply not be able to afford to back that commitment up by investing in languages.

“The center is an attempt to make a statement about where we are as a college,” Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) Professor Anthony Chase said in the Winter 2013 edition of the Occidental Magazine. “But it’s much more than just a nice renovation of a building. It emphasizes and puts an exclamation point on Occidental’s commitment to integrating the global into the studies we do here in Los Angeles.”

It is somewhat symbolic, really, that while the conspicuous, florescent glow of the new media wall can be seen emanating from the Johnson windows from across campus, the Keck Language Lab – only a few years ago the most modern, recently renovated part of Johnson Hall – has been moved to the basement of Booth Hall, where it has to share the same space as the music library and the RAW Records studio.

Not long after announcing the multi-million dollar gift from the McKinnon family to renovate Johnson Hall, the college declined to fund Advanced Arabic (302). Next semester, the college will gut Arabic 202 and intermediate German as well. The college has also abandoned all Italian classes.

The popular argument as to why funding of language programs is not more highly prioritized is because there is not enough student interest. But, there are two problems with this argument.

First, real proficiency in a foreign language must be mandatory, rather than contingent on student interest. DWA majors in particular should be required to prove their proficiency in a foreign language. At present, DWA majors are only required to take two semesters of two different languages or four semesters of one language, currently with no standard for proficiency. All other majors that wish to emphasize an international aspect of their discipline should also be required to demonstrate proficiency; this might apply to economics, religious studies, history or politics majors.

The second problem with this argument is that it fails to acknowledge the tremendous amount of funds poured into the Johnson renovation without demonstrated enthusiasm from students. The hypocrisy is clear: the college claims that it was justifiable to shell out more than $10 million in donation money on a project which it could not confirm would be met with enthusiasm and broadly utilized, while it somehow considers it impossible to pay the salary of a few more part-time language professors because not enough students are expected to participate.

The college cannot afford to throw up its hands and say, “Oh well. I guess our students will only be cosmopolitan when it comes to looking at PowerPoints on a giant light-up wall.” Occidental must demand more from its students when it comes to languages, support students in achieving more and work to foster enthusiasm for languages.

The college must make it possible for students to earn at least a minor in Arabic, Chinese, German and Japanese. It must offer intensive language courses (courses that meet five days per week) that place greater emphasis on communicating in these languages. It must revive the Italian program. It must provide conversation classes for every language at every level.

Departments with grants available for students to complete independent research should also expand the parameters of these programs to include funding for language immersion trips. For example, students seeking Young Grants through the John Parke Young Fund, available to economics and DWA majors, should be able to apply for funding for a language immersion trip if they can argue (as they must for grants used for research or internship purposes) that proficiency in that language is as crucial to their career or academic goals.

Finally, the college must include promoting enthusiasm for foreign languages as a core tenet of its commitment to cosmopolitanism and global studies.

Although the demands listed above are immediately urgent, there is more work to be done once they are met. To remain a competitive institution in an increasingly integrated world, Occidental must continually, purposefully and meaningfully evolve and improve its language programs.

Haley Gray is a senior DWA major. She can be reached at grayh@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyHGray.

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