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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa’s largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is expanding the pathways to fulfill its world language requirements to give students more flexibility, despite concerns from some faculty the move could mean “radical changes” in how well students learn foreign languages and cultures — and the number of faculty needed to teach them.
The change adds two alternative paths to meeting the college’s current requirement, which mandates students complete coursework in a single foreign language equal to four years in high school or four semesters in college.
One of the new paths is a “3+1” option, letting students take the equivalent of three high school years or three college semesters in a single language, plus one “approved culture, applied language, or experiential course related to world languages.”
Such courses could include any contributing to a student’s understanding of a culture and language; experiential learning relevant to the culture or language; study abroad experiences involving the language; or topics in language study.
The second — and more controversial — new pathway is a “2+2” option letting students explore a language other than one they’ve already studied by requiring the equivalent of two high school years or two college semesters in two different languages.
Some UI Division of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures faculty are concerned that option will leave students with “only very basic knowledge of two languages” and “relatively low” cultural exposure, according to a division report made in response to potential changes.
But administrators behind the changes say a single four-level proficiency mandate can keep some students from graduating on time; disproportionately hinder low-income or minority students without access to world languages classes in high school; and impede recruitment and enrollment goals.
“World languages are a critical part of the undergraduate curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, however there are significant inequities in access to, and completion of, languages course work in high schools,” UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Sara Sanders said in an email to The Gazette.
An administrative proposal to add “flexibility” to the requirement reports about 60 percent of first-time, first-year students complete the UI’s world language requirement in high school. About 40 percent — plus many transfer students — enter the UI without the mandate satisfied.
Half of those don’t take the language courses they need from the UI world languages division but rather transfer them from elsewhere — like a community college, according to the administration.
“The proposed changes would add flexibility for our students to complete their world language requirement while maintaining the rigor and high standards expected at a top-tier public research university,” Sanders said. “That flexibility is designed to improve student retention and graduation, while giving students more opportunities to connect their language studies to their major without compromising multilingualism as a priority in our undergraduate curriculum.”
The college’s faculty assembly recently voted 26 to 21 against the proposal — with many from humanities, social sciences and arts divisions speaking out, according to chair of the UI French and Italian Department Roxanna Curto.
She noted a “large number of concerns about the 2+2 option and less about the 3+1.”
On Friday, Sanders distributed an email to administrators and executive officers announcing adoption of the “proposal to add greater flexibility to the CLAS Core GE world language requirement.” The new pathways will become available starting in summer 2024, according to Sanders’ email, which was provided to The Gazette.
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Cornelia Lang guided the proposal through an “inclusive process, with thoughtful discussion” with faculty over the last year, according to Sanders.
But Curto stressed, “In order to implement such a large change you need faculty buy-in.”
“It was clear there was a lot of opposition in the departments most affected,” she said, “and much of the support was from departments least affected.”
Among the concerns some faculty have with the changes is the worry students could get a liberal arts degree with only surface-level knowledge of another language and culture.
“Personally, I do believe that learning other languages in general is important,” said UI Islamic Studies Associate Professor Ahmed Souaiaia, who also serves on the college’s faculty assembly. “Personal belief aside, the college has determined that second language acquisition is important. That is why, among all the options the college presented, none suggested the elimination of second language acquisition. The question, then, is what are some of the sound pathways to achieving competence in a second language?”
Concerned faulty members, including Souaiaia, reference data showing students — when offered options — “always optimize their choices.”
“That is, picking the easiest path,” he said. “In this case, given the three options, 2+2 option is the easiest path. That should be considered, for all intents and purposes, as the default path that the absolute majority of students, if not all, will opt for.”
The next question, according to Souaiaia, is whether UI is comfortable with that being the standard route for second-language learning.
“The answer, for many of us, especially those who teach and speak other languages, is that 2+2 … would not allow students to gain adequate proficiency in a second language,” said Souaiaia, who knows five languages.
Working with the assumption more students will opt for the 2+2 path, more students would enroll in beginning language courses and fewer would be in intermediate or advanced language courses.
“But it’s difficult to predict in which languages the increased demand for additional elementary sections will materialize,” according to the division report, noting staffing challenges amid such uncertainty and the potential for a drop in instructional needs.
“Programs that have both graduate (teaching assistants) and instructional track faculty may be faced with a Sophie’s choice in the face of declining enrollments: sacrifice graduate TA lines or cut instructional track faculty positions (or both),” according to the report.
Faculty also worries the changes could result in fewer students majoring or minoring in a language — a decision often precipitated by advanced-level courses. But even without the change, the number of language majors is falling, according to data in a 2020-21 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences self-study.
Undergraduate Spanish majors, for example, dropped from 288 in 2013 to 189 in 2020 — including only 56 who chose it as their primary major, down from 105 in 2013. The count of undergraduate French majors dropped from 70 to 40 during that time — with only 11 choosing it as their primary major, half of the 22 who made it their primary major in 2013.
In spring 2022, a survey of UI faculty from departments and programs offering world language courses found 81 percent supported keeping the current fourth-level requirement as the only option, according to the world languages division report.
That report argues in-depth study and multilingualism is imperative to a liberal arts education for a variety of reasons — including the “increasingly globalized world.”
“Language learning helps students develop new perspectives on culture, literature, politics, and history, preparing students for diverse and multicultural future workplaces, as well as for their lifetime of learning,” according to the division report.
Mandating in-depth study also supports UI’s diversity and equity goals, as language classrooms are “inherently multicultural” and “designed to emphasize and support students in engaging with diverse contexts and the value of global citizenship,” according to the division report.
Still, many UI peer institutions either offer language requirement flexibility or have thought about doing so, according to administrators. But faculty concerned with the change have reported at least seven Big Ten campuses require fourth-semester proficiency for bachelor of arts and science degrees — with another four mandating it for just bachelor of arts degrees.
To that, administrators argued, the new proposed language pathways offer UI “an opportunity to be a leader among our peers.”
Among the six UI colleges offering undergraduate degrees, only the colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Education still require four high school years or four college semesters of one language. Others — like the Tippie College of Business and the colleges of Nursing and Public Health — already offer two or three alternative pathways, including the 2+2 option.
“The College of Engineering has no requirement beyond admission (second-level proficiency in a single world language),” according to UI officials.
Given the 2+2 pathway already is in play for some UI students, world languages faculty looked deeper at what it has meant for the business college.
For starters, faculty reported 81 percent of business students who come to the UI with the language requirement unfulfilled choose the 2+2 option. And in spring 2018, the world languages division surveyed 739 fourth-level language students and found 69 percent were taking the high-level course just to complete their requirement — and not for another reason, like achieving a major or minor.
Translating those percentages to the 616 students enrolled in fourth-level courses in spring 2022 means 422 would be taking the advanced classes out of necessity and about 338 would have opted for the 2+2 path.
When combining third- and fourth-level courses, the division projects more than 1,000 of its 2021-2022 third- and fourth-level students would have opted to learn a second language at a more basic level.
“With 20 students/section, that’s 52 sections of intermediate-level language that would be eliminated over the course of the (annual year), and perhaps 52 additional sections of elementary language that would need to be added,” according to the report.
In response to concerns, college administrators committed to continued support for current teaching assistant lines — along with instructional track, visiting and adjunct faculty “during the transition period and going forward to meet instructional needs.”
They also vowed to increase instructional support where needed and to involve instructors in developing new class materials — suggesting awards for “new and innovative curricula.”
The UI offers 13 options to fulfill its world languages requirement of students:
American Sign Language
For more information, visit: https://catalog.registrar.uiowa.edu/liberal-arts-sciences/general-education-program/#languages
Source: University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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