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Correction appended.

Though discussions of a proposal to offer foreign language and culture certificates for undergraduates will continue next semester, faculty have questioned the rationale behind offering such programs and the ability of language departments to accommodate the increased enrollment the certificates could bring. The University does not offer minors, but the proposed certificates would essentially function as minors in a foreign language.

To receive certification, a student would be required to take six language and culture courses focusing on a specific language, work or study abroad in a country where the language is spoken and maintain an online portfolio of work, wrote Katherine Bergeron, dean of the College, in an email to The Herald.

Almost all students completing language concentrations combine them with second concentrations, according to Bergeron. The proposed certificates would require fewer courses than any concentration program.

Many of Brown's peer institutions offer certifications or minors in foreign languages. The Office of International Programs has encouraged the University to offer certificates since 2007, according to the minutes of a March 8 faculty forum held to discuss the proposal.

 

Defining proficiency

Many faculty think language certificates are a good idea, but it remains to be seen how the University "would go about doing this," said Cynthia Garcia Coll, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and professor of education.

One consideration involves how best to test students on their language proficiency. "We're not going to just give a student a test and then give them a certificate," she said. "They have to develop a portfolio."

Departments and faculty have to ask themselves what they are "actually certifying," said Kerry Smith, professor of history and chair of the East Asian studies department. "After three years, are we saying that you're proficient or fluent? What about someone taking third-year French who has already taken French in high school? I'm not sure how we go about comparing what we mean by proficiency."

It is also unclear whether language departments can support the implementation of language and culture certifications.

"The language departments came out and said, ‘Wait a minute, we don't have the infrastructure for this,'" Garcia Coll said.

Language departments are already overwhelmed, Smith said, and the proposed certificates could increase enrollment by 10 to 15 percent. "Does it mean this will diminish the quality of instruction?" he said. "If you look at the staffing numbers of our peer institutions, we don't compare well. It's a long struggle to try to correct that."

The University's lack of language certifications places it out of step with peer institutions, most of which offer minors or similar certifications.

"We are always comparing ourselves to other institutions," Garcia Coll said. "I'm sure it is part of the motivation but not the only motivation."

But the University does not base decisions on its peers, Smith said. "That's not the way Brown does things."

 

‘Commodifying language'

Faculty and department chairs also questioned whether the proposed certificates would be used solely to help students make their transcripts look more appealing.

"There are questions such as, are we commodifying language acquisition? Is it just another thing that students can put on their resumes, or is it something that can bring students a real understanding?" Garcia Coll said. "We want them to be really interested."

In the past, similar proposals have been turned down by faculty, Luiz Fernando Valente, associate professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies and chair of the department, wrote in an email to The Herald.

"Many of us believe that such certificates go against the basic principles of the Brown curriculum," he wrote. "A Brown education should not be a process of accumulating credentials, but rather of developing an integrated program of study that makes sense for each individual student."

Valente emphasized that a foreign language certificate would be the equivalent of a minor in the foreign languages. And minors were eliminated with the implementation of the New Curriculum.

"Why not offer a certificate in computer science for students who would like to do work in computer science beyond the basic level, but not enough to complete a concentration?" he wrote. "We shouldn't attempt to reintroduce minors through the back door."

 

An incentive to learn

For students, a certificate might make learning languages more rewarding, said Kai Loh '14, head of the Brown Language Society, a student group formed to serve as a Department Undergraduate Group for students learning languages.

"If there were language certificates, people would want to go beyond certain levels," he said. "People usually stop at the 400-level. I think the major gains come from taking classes in the upper levels."

Loh said there are many gaps in terms of resources for language at Brown. "Compared to our peers, there's a long way to go," he said. "I know at Princeton, language classes are kept to a small size, about 12 students per class."

Loh cited the open curriculum as a factor in the popularity of language classes at Brown. "Because of the open curriculum, sometimes students have no incentive to study languages," he said. "Having the certification would spark more interest in learning languages."

 

Moving forward

A committee of language department chairs will work in the fall to address the concerns raised by the faculty, Bergeron wrote.

Faculty who favor the proposal are "excited about the possibility of encouraging more students to continue their language studies to an advanced level, and they like the interdisciplinary nature of the requirements," Bergeron wrote. Faculty who oppose the certificates "are concerned about a strain on departmental resources and the need for a broader discussion of language teaching at Brown."

Valente said that at a meeting of foreign language department chairs with Bergeron last week, it was clear that most of the chairs prefer not to proceed with foreign language certificates at this time.

"We agreed, rather, that we need to create a task force to assess the current state and future aspirations of foreign language departments," he wrote. "Brown is behind other universities in terms of support and facilities for foreign languages, and focusing on a certificate would distract us from more important and pressing issues regarding foreign language study at Brown."

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Kerry Smith, professor of history and chair of the East Asian studies department, as saying the proposed certificates would increase enrollment in language departments by 10 to 15 students. He said enrollments would increase by 10-15 percent. The Herald regrets the error.




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