Push for Language Proficiency

Pitt’s arts and sciences faculty is divided over a proposal to eliminate a high school study exemption from foreign language requirement. Some say high school seat time is poor measure of proficiency, while others fear forcing too many students into language courses.

January 23, 2017
 
Nationality Rooms in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning

Foreign language study helps high school students gain admission to colleges and universities, but should it also exempt from them from such study once admitted? An ongoing curricular debate at the University of Pittsburgh -- in which about half the faculty seem to want to raise the standard for foreign language study and half want to maintain the status quo -- highlights the role of foreign languages in general education at a public research university.

“Grades and what they mean at different high schools vary immensely, as do standards and practices -- every state certifies its own foreign language teachers in different ways,” said Lina Insana, chair of French and Italian at Pitt. “They’re a totally unreliable measure of what a student has accomplished.”

Insana is a co-author of a proposal to eliminate what she called a “very large loophole” in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ general education requirements for foreign language. Currently, Dietrich’s undergraduates must complete a two-course sequence in a foreign language prior to graduation. Students may gain an exemption from the requirement in one of several ways, including taking a proficiency test administered by Pitt, scoring a four or five on an Advanced Placement exam, or earning B’s or better in all courses over three years of foreign language study in high school.

That last pathway out of foreign language study is what Insana and many of her colleagues want to change. They say precollege foreign language study that does not culminate in the ability to pass a proficiency test should not automatically exempt students from their otherwise required two terms of study. While the Advanced Placement exam and university proficiency tests are standard instruments that provide a good sense of what a student has learned, proponents say, a mere transcript is not.

“We would never dream of saying, ‘Oh, you took high school algebra, so you never have to prove your math competency again at this institution of higher learning,’” for example, Insana said. “The idea that there’s not enough time for language learning is a very typical American cultural bias. … Yet we can’t expect the world to speak English.”

Pitt doesn’t seem to expect the world to speak English, either. It has committed to “Living Globally” by 2020, meaning that it will “pursue research and scholarship that increase global understanding,” “develop our students into global citizens and leaders,” and “improve people’s lives by studying and solving the world’s most critical problems.” Nearly half of the students in the College of Business Administration, for example, study abroad.

Yet a number of professors in the Dietrich School have vocally opposed the proposal, saying that two terms of foreign language study is too onerous a requirement for all students. Adam Leibovich, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, wrote in an email to his faculty colleagues on the eve of a fully faculty vote on the proposal, “We need a large turnout of science faculty to have our voices heard so that resources are not taken away from us,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. “Please make sure that you go to the faculty meeting and that you encourage your faculty to do the same.” That was late last semester; Leibovich since declined an interview request.

David J. Birnbaum, chair of Slavic languages and co-author of the proposal, told Inside Higher Ed via email that prior to the meeting, “some colleagues in other divisions circulated alarmist announcements, filled with meticulous arithmetic, asserting that thousands of students would be required to enroll in language courses if the proposal were accepted. That was never true. What thousands of students would have to do is take a placement test, as they have always had to do with every other requirement that makes exemption an option except foreign language. If every one of those students who studied language in high school were to pass the placement test, there would be no additional enrollment in language courses.”

The only way thousands of additional students would have to study language at Pitt, he added, “would be if thousands of students who had studied language in high school failed the placement test, that is, if the assertion in the curriculum that high school language study automatically meets Pitt’s outcome requirement turned out to completely unfounded.”

Insana said she was still gathering data on how many students meet the high school exemption requirement.

The outcome of the faculty vote was 62 in favor and 67 opposed, but the idea is not dead. The proposal now goes to the student and faculty Undergraduate Council for further study, according to information from the university. The last time Pitt updated its general education requirements was in 2001.

Beyond Pitt

While the foreign language debate most frequently plays out in K-12 education, it’s also part of many conversations about general higher education: How many terms, if any, of a foreign language do students need to round out their studies and give them a head start on the job market? Over all, though, requirements are declining. According to information from the Modern Language Association, the percentage of four-year colleges and universities mandating foreign language study dropped 17 percentage points between 1995 and 2010, to about half of all institutions. Many language departments on a number of campuses also have been targets for elimination.

More institutions have come to expect foreign language study in high school for admission, however. Twenty-one percent of colleges and universities required it in 1995, compared to 25 percent in 2010.

Still, many top institutions that require foreign language study have exemption policies involving high AP scores or some other standardized demonstration of proficiency -- not just general high school study. Princeton University is weighing a proposal to expand its foreign language requirement, specifying that all undergraduates -- including those with high AP scores and even native fluency in another language -- would have to study foreign language for at least one semester. Yale University, for example, also requires all students to take some foreign language courses.

The MLA also has highlighted the need for more programs for heritage speakers, or those who speak another language for cultural or family reasons. Pitt is somewhat unique among its peer institutions in that it admits a significant share of local heritage speakers who speak a variety of languages of study, including Italian, Polish and Russian. The university offers courses in more than 30 languages.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that Pitt’s high school language exemption policy was unusual among its peers, in that most require an AP score or similar. Three years of high school study with B grades is “virtually meaningless” since at many high schools, “seat time in a language does not necessarily translate to any meaningful level of proficiency,” she said.

“One would expect college students going to the caliber of college as Pitt to be expected to have three years of language with a good grade -- that’s generally an entrance requirement,” Feal said. “If Pitt wants to be like the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan or another highest-caliber public institution, then having higher standards would make sense.” Feal noted that many institutions already require four semesters of study, not two.

Birnbaum emphasized that the proposal isn’t about getting students to take more or fewer language courses, but to bring the current requirement to “the same honesty, consistency and integrity that we see in every other requirement.”

“If Pitt believes that students don’t need to have language proficiency equivalent to a year of college-level study, let us write that honestly into our curriculum,” he said. “But if we believe that they do, we need to test it. The current curriculum says one thing and does another.”

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