At Two-Year Colleges, a Year of Language

March 26, 2009

At the City Colleges of Chicago this fall, foreign language will no longer be optional. Under a proposal expected to soon receive final board approval, all associate of arts students would be required to take eight credit hours of a foreign language to graduate with the transferable credential (the proposed requirement does not apply to students seeking vocational two-year degrees).

The required language courses would replace eight hours of electives, and could be fulfilled by taking a year's worth of courses at introductory or more advanced levels. “Not only do we want them to be exposed to the foreign language, we want them to be exposed to the culture as well. This really is keeping with providing exposure to globalization,” said Angela Henderson, the seven-college system’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, planning and resources.

Only about 695 of the City Colleges' 14,000 A.A. students enroll in foreign languages, and Henderson said the system expects to hire a mix of full- and part-time faculty to respond to the anticipated surge in demand (she said the balance of part-timers to full-timers is still under discussion). "The good thing is we offer day, evening and weekend courses, so we are hoping that we won't have a problem recruiting faculty in these areas," Henderson said. Languages taught across the various campuses include Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish and Spanish.

Nationally, A.A. programs lag behind other degree programs in requiring foreign languages for graduation. The latest (and dated) data from the Modern Language Association show that, in 1998-99, 31 percent of two-year colleges had language requirements for graduation for at least some academic programs, compared to 71, 86 and 85 percent at the B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. levels, respectively. Those statistics reflect modest increases from the previous survey (in 1995), but may overstate the raw numbers of students affected by language requirements. As the MLA’s executive director, Rosemary G. Feal, cautioned, “When we say institutions require a language it doesn’t mean that every student at the institution has to have or meet the same requirements," since requirements in many cases are program-specific.

The City Colleges of Chicago did have a language requirement in the 1960s, and its disappearance then and restoration now is consistent with national trends. “Historically, language requirements, they were prevalent at most institutions up until the mid-60s, and then began to decline throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, then they began to creep up again by the late 80s, 90s, and now they’re creeping up considerably again. It’s almost like a bell curve,” said Feal.

When asked about the prevalence of language requirements at two-year institutions, Jane Harper, an MLA executive council member and 41-year community college veteran said, “It depends on how long your history is -- how long one has been in the community college system or observing the community college system.”

“At one time, we required two years of language study for students who were going into four-year institutions because most of them required those two years of study. So we could help them get that out of the way before they made their transfer,” said Harper, vice president for teaching and learning at Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus, in Texas, and a French professor by training. She added that Tarrant County currently doesn’t require foreign language, and is restricted by Texas law in the number of communications courses it can require as part of its core curriculum (with composition and speech courses filling the available slots). “We respond to the demands of the public who support us,” said Harper, adding, again, a need for a sense of history.

“To which of the demands are you responding at the time? And it looks to me like internationalization is one of the demands that we need to be looking at very seriously with a broad view, and that we need to incorporate concepts of throughout our curriculum. But still the best place, the most straight-forward place to do that, is through languages and literatures and cultures.”

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