Before you know it, a fresh copy of the November issue of The Blue and White will be in your hands.  In the mean time, Bwog will be posting highlights from the issue every day.  Today, Mark Hay investigates the politics of language learning at Columbia.

Over the last decade Columbia has become acutely aware of and preoccupied with globalization. Under the auspices of President Bollinger and helped along by the World Leaders Forum and new Global Centers for this, that and the other thing — not to mention the media hounding of Jeffrey Sachs and friends — the global preoccupation has come to shape the central goals of the university. Even those in charge of the Core Curriculum now conceive of its “courses and requirements work[ing] together to provide a foundation of knowledge and skills that help prepare our students for today’s increasingly globalized world,” as Professor Patricia Grieve, Chair of the Committee on the Core, puts it. Because of this global mindset, the language requirement has become central to Columbia’s mission.

“It’s very important to have the tools to critically understand the world, and language is the royal highway to a culture,” says Language Resource Center Director Stéphane Charitos. “The fact that students are expected to reach a level [an intermediate fluency] in a foreign language,” agrees Director of the French Language Program Pascale Hubert-Leibler, “shows that Columbia takes its mission of training global citizens seriously.”

Yet despite the commitment and idealism of the university, Columbia’s language program falls short of providing a common baseline for students to engage with the modern world. Columbia leaves gaps in its language education, and students graduating with equal credit hours of language training under their belts do not share an equal level of fluency. The problem of disparity in college language learning is endemic across universities, but certain facets of Columbia’s language problem come from within the university itself — from the various language departments and the way each chooses to pursue its own set of goals.

The problem common to all universities is the simple question of what constitutes fluency and how one reaches an equal level of fluency in all languages taught. Some languages like Arabic require students to master new sounds, new grammar patterns, or even a new script (two new scripts in some languages like Hindi-Urdu). Because of the sheer number of elements beginners need to learn, some languages simply require more hours to master. For example, Professor Charitos notes that “although we teach Modern Standard [Arabic], [students] do need to be aware of Classical Arabic as well as colloquial forms [the highly divergent and almost mutually unintelligible Levantine, Iraqi, Egyptian, etc. dialects].” A student of French, on the other hand, already possesses some knowledge of Latin roots from English, and will not find Quebecois or Belgian French immensely difficult to comprehend.

Given the unique demands of every language, Columbia College’s four-semester requirement does not produce a common level of fluency. The current language requirement measures time spent in a chair, as opposed to the British university system and the AP and IB systems which test students for mastery. As a result, almost every language instructor will agree with the sentiments of Russian Language Coordinator Professor Frank Miller: compared to any other language, “[students of] Spanish and French are much more fluent” after an equal number of semesters.

More importantly, language teachers agree that there is no coordination between departments unless it happens by accident, when instructors get together for conferences held to develop classroom techniques. “Welcome to the world of Columbia. This is not just languages. Columbia is a very decentralized place in general,” says Charitos. Even the Committee on the Core, some administrators admit, exercises no real regulatory authority over the various languages students use to fulfill the language requirement beyond basic, university-wide standards of curricula and grading.

In practical terms, this departmental autonomy means 53 languages are offered unevenly across eight departments with vastly differing resources and overall missions, frequently leading to oversights. Southeast Asia, for example, is an area of the world covered by none of Columbia’s academic departments.No department’s mission lays claim to teaching Southeast Asian culture and, because they tend to leave each other alone, the departments have not determined among themselves which department might. As a result, Columbia offers virtually no classes on Southeast Asian culture, although students can pursue several Southeast Asian languages. As Charitos remarks, seriously attempting to learn a language without a buttressing of cultural insight is nearly pointless.

Still, Charitos and the Language Resource Center (LRC) have attempted to engage with this vital and vastly underrepresented portion of the world. They currently offer Bahasa (Indonesian) through the LRC, have established a small Vietnamese program within the East Asian Languages and Cultures department, and hope to offer University of Pennsylvania courses on Thai in the coming year via Skype. But with no departmental focus on Southeast Asia, Bahasa’s presence at Columbia remains minuscule, with two students enrolled as of this printing. Even departmentally-supported Vietnamese remains nothing but a five-person introductory class. For lack of departmental mission focus, many languages of great importance to the modern globalized world like those of Southeast and Central Asia will remain atrophied or non-extant at Columbia.

One might think that enough student pressure could force a language into good standing in the University. Indeed, there is currently a movement to secure instruction in the politically vital Pashto language, the dominant language in the Taliban-dominated areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, as Charitos explains, selecting a language requires great caution in assessing its long-term staying power, financial viability, and a host of other factors. He recalls students amassing in the early 1990s for a strong Albanian program and in 2008 for a robust Georgian program following political upheaval in those nations, but it is often hard to tell when that demand will endure or whether it will be transient. Even for languages that can outlast a fad, limited funds within the LRC often cannot attract the talent needed to establish a viable program.

Creating a course may be the easy part, though. Only by the grace of a larger department’s intervention can a language program really take hold and prosper. And as to how those languages survive once inside a department: “For lack of a better word, I’m going to call it departmental politics,” says Charitos of the dependency of languages on the missions and interests of the departments that house them.

Those languages already taken in by a department are also subject to the push-and-pull of academic politics. “If we’re going to have a good Slavic Department, we need other languages [than Russian] too,” says Miller, explaining his department’s insistence on offering multiple levels of study in non-Russian Slavic languages with tiny enrollments. “Plus they’re important as far as linguistics is concerned,” continues Miller, hinting at the influence of the now-defunct Linguistics Department which has been largely subsumed into the Slavic Languages department. Because several Slavic Languages department professors are linguists by training, the department has a clear departmental mission — to encourage the comparative study of Slavic tongues, their structures, and their origins.

Some departmental missions effectively prioritize a few languages while neglecting others. The Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) has shifted its departmental values away from South Indian languages and toward North Indian languages within roughly the last decade. A shrunken Tamil program remains, but Punjabi (through the LRC) and Hindi-Urdu have become two of the faster growing languages in their respective departments. Meanwhile the LRC’s programs in the South Indian languages of Kannada and Telugu are no longer offered, despite no significant change worldwide in their numbers of speakers. As goes the department’s interest, so goes the fate of any language program.

MESAAS also provides a fine example of locked resources. Charitos explains that during a bubble — such as the explosion of interest in Russia during the Cold War or Japan in the early 1990s — a university may make the informed decision to employ faculty, even full professors, whose contracts stipulate that they teach a certain language. Then when interest in these languages is no longer so politically crucial, the University retains tenured professors in areas of decreasing academic importance. Sanskrit followed this pattern — the program was at its height a dozen years ago, but even now with an introductory class of only four students, Professor Sheldon Pollock and Assistant Professor Som Dev Vasudeva remain instructors whereas faster growing classes have only lecturers.

Swahili exemplifies a more interdepartmental pull on languages. One of the rising stars of new languages, Swahili dwarfs its sister African languages of Zulu and Wolof in student interest. One might argue that Swahili has three times the total number of speakers of Zulu, but both have approximately the same number of native speakers. But, as Charitos notes, the dominance of Swahili at Columbia, especially recently, is probably best explained by the work of the Earth Institute in East Africa.

“There is a Columbia emphasis on that part of the world and students are aware of that,” says Charitos. They take note of, seek work with, and generally follow the linguistic prescriptions of larger university entities like the Earth Institute, which have the budgets and prominence to attract them. Small languages that have almost no budget stay alive solely through external money. The diminutive Finnish and Armenian departments are kept alive merely by the grace of donors, the likes of which cannot exist to prop up and propel the fates of every language.

Even if the university could make a central decision about which languages to fund, departments will still drive their own priorities within classes. “It depends on what the department feels its mission is,” says Charitos. “For some, it’s to train their graduate students.” For others it is to ensure that undergraduates are able to better understand a culture, or a political system, or enter a field unrelated to but increasingly dominated by that language. The East Asian Languages and Cultures Department, to these ends, has started to offer at the advanced level courses in Business and Media Chinese. It can be more subtle though—Sam Kohn, CC’13 and a student of Swahili, Spanish, and Finnish, has noticed a stronger focus on spoken language in Swahili and on reading and writing in Finnish.

Most telling are the stated focuses of the language coordinators themselves: Miller wants his students to “have a good understanding of Russian culture, Russian life, and Russian people,” so his advanced courses include history classes taught in Russian. His attention to linguistic difference also drives him to believe that one cannot lump together even the closely related languages into a singular class. Ukrainian and Russian, fairly close linguistically, are taught as separate classes whereas Hindi and Urdu, which use different scripts and vocabularies are taught as a singular class through MESAAS. “They’re as different as Dutch and German,” says Miller.

Meanwhile in the French department, Hubert-Leibler aims to have students “able to read journalistic and literary texts” and to train graduate students well enough so that they are able to continue in French academia. She believes that focus is why her department’s faculty “teach writing and analytical skills in their advanced courses” more than another department might.

The grad student-centrism of the French department also leads them to teach many of their language classes at multiple levels with graduate student instructors, whereas MESAAS nearly exclusively employs language instructors who often have a better background and need less training in the arts of language instruction. Taken together, this translates to the fact that, even were one to find a way of accounting for common fluency standards, of finding the funding and central authority to assure that every language could receive the same level of support and of buttressing courses, the intellectual interests of the department would still hem students in as far as focuses and strengths of teachers and teaching.

True, learning a second language will open doors for students. But with languages driven in every direction by their inherent difficulties for English speakers and by university and departmental goals and politics, the number and size of those doors will vary; some will jam, some will not budge. We become, then, less the global citizens Hubert-Leibler sees the language requirement driving us to become, and more envoys and scions of our departments traveling into a global, but still segmented world.

Illustration by Maddy Kloss