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Keeping Cornell Multilingual

Inside Higher Ed


Cornell University is “planting a flag for foreign language and international relations.” That’s how Tom Pepinsky, associate professor of government and chair of College of Arts and Sciences’ curriculum committee, described its plan to maintain a stringent foreign language requirement: 11 credits, or typically three semesters’ worth of classes in one language for those who don't already have some language proficiency. (Those who do have some proficiency may take one intermediate-level course instead.)

The decision means that Cornell will not adopt a decidedly controversial committee proposal to decrease the 11-credit requirement to six credits, or two courses in most languages.

“I think it’s an exciting time for the College of Arts and Sciences,” Pepinsky said. “Faculty are engaged in identifying the kind of education students need for the 21st century, that reflects to some degree the demands of those students.”

Student demand is what led the curriculum committee to rethink its foreign language requirement during an overhaul of the hefty, 15-year-old required college curriculum. Currently, in addition to the language requirement, students must take four approved courses in the natural sciences and math, along with five approved courses in the arts, social sciences and humanities. All those courses must fulfill certain distribution categories, such as cultural analysis and quantitative reasoning.

“My sense is that students across the board at Cornell feel a lot of pressure,” Pepinsky said, disagreeing with some faculty perceptions that just premed students were pushing the two-course proposal. “Students are under a lot of pressure here.”

However popular it might have been with overwhelmed students, the proposal met with opposition from the general arts and sciences faculty. Many professors, mainly those in the humanities and social sciences, and those in language departments, in particular, thought dropping the requirement would be a mistake -- and a failure to make good on Cornell’s global ambitions.

“It just seemed crazy to a lot of us, at a world-class university that claims to be forming global citizens,” Mitchell Greenberg, chair of romance languages, said of the six-credit proposal. “You can’t be a global citizen if you’re monolingual … It’s incredibly narrow-minded to think that everybody’s going to speak English.”

Some faculty members also worried that cutting the requirement to six credits would encourage students to pursue languages that are deemed easier, or least involve fewer credit hours; currently students taking some Asian languages fulfill the language 11-credit requirement in one year, as these introductory courses are six credits, instead of four, as in other languages.

Cornell’s student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, also ran an editorial urging the faculty not to “gut” the language requirement, showing that it has at least some student support.

“The committee (on which no language professors sit) notes that students often find the current requirements burdensome; many students aim to take a single intermediate-level semester of a language they studied in high school, and some even transfer out of the college to avoid those courses,” reads the editorial. “While this may be true, the response to such apathy should not be to lessen what is expected of undergraduates. If students have issues with foreign language classes at Cornell, those issues should be addressed, not swept under the rug by lowering the requirements altogether.” If students aren't interested in taking these classes, the editorial suggests, perhaps the classes need to be more interesting.

After months of what Greenberg called “heated debate,” the college faculty developed a compromise: keep the language requirement as is and consider more flexibility in the curriculum committee’s proposed set of distribution requirements.

The curriculum committee’s general set of recommendations says that students may take one course each in 10 categories, including ethics and the mind and statistics and data science. But college professors are soon set to vote on maintaining the language requirement while letting two of the 10 distribution requirement courses “double-count." So instead of 10 required general education courses, students would technically only have to take eight.

One of the distribution requirements is global citizenship. But the three language courses can’t fulfill that.

Pepinsky said he sensed general interest in the compromise and believed it would pass. That does help alleviate some pressure on students, he said. Yet the challenge in any curricular revision is to reflect not only “faculty interests and desires,” but also student ones, he said.

In sticking with its requirements, Cornell is flouting a national trend away from required foreign language study. While the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Language Learning has called for more investment in language learning, data from the Modern Language Association show that the percentage of four-year colleges and universities that require foreign language study fell 17 percentage points between 1995 and 2010, to about half of all institutions. The MLA has attributed that change to a shift toward distribution requirements instead of required courses.

Significantly, though, more institutions expect students to matriculate with foreign language experience. Twenty-one percent of colleges and universities required high school study in 1995, compared to 25 percent in 2010, according to the MLA.

Among other institutions to recently have considered upping their language requirements is Princeton University. It is still mulling a plan to require that all students -- even those with the highest Advanced Placement exam grades -- study a foreign language to graduate.

View full story: Inside Higher Ed



Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc