Columns, Opinions

Savello ’18: Maximizing language opportunities

By
staff columnist
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In my first semester at Brown, I signed up for a Spanish class on a whim. Seated in HISP0600: “Advanced Spanish II” alongside a group of near-fluent students and upperclassmen, I was absolutely terrified when the professor called on me to read a paragraph aloud to the class. I had taken AP Spanish in high school, but we hardly ever spoke in class. I didn’t have the skills I needed to properly pronounce basic words, let alone read a literary text in Spanish. But by the end of the semester, after weeks of oral presentations, quizzes, class discussions and group projects, my Spanish skills significantly improved — as did my confidence, interpersonal skills and ability to express my ideas.

For me, this language class was not just a tedious requirement, but an opportunity to explore a different side of my education and develop my skillset. Unfortunately, not all Brown students take advantage of this opportunity. In fact, many students choose to forego language courses because of the lengthy time requirement — meeting up to four times a week for most sub-500 level courses and completing time-consuming assignments and projects. Other students take the plunge and begin a language, but eventually discontinue it. The stringent language requirement for International Relations concentrators, for example, forces many concentrators to switch to another discipline in the political realm.

But these students fail to realize the variety of benefits that come with putting a little extra work into picking up a new language or improving on one they already know. As I can personally attest, the value of speaking a foreign language and the personal growth that accompanies the process far outweigh the burden of extra coursework. We all know that being bilingual — or even multilingual — can boost your career prospects and simply help you connect with people from other cultures. What is less known is that it can also make you a better communicator overall: Once you start expressing yourself in a foreign language, doing the same in English seems effortless in comparison.

The large number of assignments in language classes may be off-putting for some, but in the long run, the coursework will only help. And because there are so many assignments, it is often not necessary to complete every single one to perfection in order to succeed in class. Most professors in the language departments are understanding and allow for paper extensions, offer support with lengthy projects and even set up plans to help you participate in class if you are nervous about speaking publicly in a new language.

Moreover, language professors often use a culture-focused approach, which allows students to learn not only about the language, but also about the associated cultures, from notable poets and songwriters to athletes and holidays.  Many also incorporate immersive elements into the syllabi, giving students the opportunity to apply their skills outside the classroom.

Understanding the value of these courses, the University has established several activities and resources for students to get more involved with languages. For example, the language fair during first-year orientation informs new students about language opportunities and  motivates students to explore these options. There are also student organizations like Brown Language Exchange and Charla, a Spanish conversational group, that allow students to informally learn languages.

Though campus resources and promotional events for language learning are abundant, accessibility is not. If the University truly wants students to take advantage of its language opportunities, it needs to address the leading issue that prevents students from signing up in the first place: heavy coursework and the excessive course hours. A simple solution would be to rework the time commitment of early language courses so that more students are able to enroll. And while it is necessary to consistently practice conversation to learn a language effectively, there are several alternatives to the TA-led sections that could provide the same results without the burden of additional class time. Adding more interactive homework activities, creating flexible or voluntary section hours or incorporating online speaking activities could all be potential solutions.

Ultimately, students need to take advantage of the language courses that are offered. To make that easier, Brown needs to reconsider how it structures language courses. Accessibility needs to be a priority if language departments hope to attract and retain students. For many students, college might be the last chance to diligently learn a language, and the University should ensure this opportunity is available to all.

Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at samantha_savello@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.