The Future of the Language Department

In a global superpower like the United States, the desire to speak other languages and understand other cultures, in turn, is minimal. Rather than have cultures affect each other and encourage language learning as an opportunity, America has pushed foreign languages into enclaves and tends to see foreign languages as challenges that America must overcome.

At UCI, this greater trend of disinterest in language learning is reflective in the language departments. According to language professors at UCI, the university’s purpose is to expand students’ horizons and cultivate an acute and global understanding of one’s environment, and the language departments are one way of achieving that purpose.

“People in a university don’t become average leaders, but they have the tools to be great leaders, and therefore have an advantage over others,” said Professor Armin Schwegler, professor of Spanish in the department of Spanish and Portuguese and Director of the Global Cultures Program at UCI.

In addition to providing a global understanding of culture, UCI language faculty members believe that the study of language opens new doors of research and opportunity.

Although there are clear global benefits for those who learn other languages, many students fail to see these benefits in their self-centered worldview. Take France as a prototypical example, Schwegler explains. In the middle of the 20th  century, the nation was clearly a dominant force, leading to its self-centered view on the rest of the world. As a result, French people did not have a desire to learn any other languages. But today, the nation has lost its control, and the immediate effect of that can be seen in the current generation of French people. They have finally realized the importance of learning other languages and have taken up studying language, particularly English, with a vengeance.

“We’re in a post-centrality ‘waking up’ period. We’re still a very important country, but we by no means have the monopoly that we used to enjoy, with huge profits,” Schwegler said. “There can be no question that language equals power. Knowing a foreign language equips you with a greater amount of power.”

Chair and Professor of the French and Italian department Ellen Burt agreed, saying that “UCI needs to take seriously its commitment to the idea of a university. It need not offer every language. It does need to offer quality instruction in those that it [does].”

According to Schwegler, the European Union spends one-third of its entire operating budget every year on issues related to language, including language training or translation. He says that while Europe understands the importance of language, Americans can no longer afford failing to do so.

Schwegler explained that Spanish is placed with Chinese in the top five languages worldwide. He called it “flabbergasting” that people do not realize that Spanish has more native speakers than English.

In addition to Spanish as an opportunity for international work, French is also an important language to study in an increasingly global culture.

“French is spoken in 50-odd countries around the world; it still serves as an important language of diplomacy, is a major language of the business community and the international scientific community (with France currently reputed to have the top health system in the world), has an immense and highly influential literature and philosophy and is arguably the second most influential language in the formation of English, along with Anglo-Saxon,” Burt said.

The language departments at UCI have faced recent challenges. For example, Victorina Lefebvre, lecturer in the Russian studies department, explained that students, especially those who take language as a requirement, are advised not to learn the Russian language because of its difficulty

“In reality, the Cyrillic alphabet is not difficult, and all the students learn how to read within the first two weeks. Reading Russian is much easier than reading English, because, unlike in English, one sound corresponds to one letter,” Lefebvre said.

All language departments are struggling as a whole because of budget cuts or a lack of interest in studying language.

In 1998, the Russian major at UCI was closed, and the department lost some professor positions as well as many courses. More recently, the Spanish and Portuguese department regrettably lost two faculty members who died in the last two years and have not been replaced. Older faculty members have also retired and the department has been unable to replace their positions because of the budget situation.

The department of East Asian languages and literature has also been unable to hire new lecturers. The French and Italian department has lost seven out of nine faculty members in the past three years and has had to cut course offerings and hire lecturers and visitors to fill in the gaps. Although it is speculated that undergraduate French students will probably be able to graduate on time, there are fewer courses offered this year. The department will suspend the graduate program, recommending that beginning students seek other programs.

“It is no doubt a problem for the administration to figure out how many language departments it can afford.  But it ought to afford some, if it wants a good reputation,” Burt said.

Languages carry an added complication: they require cultivation, and one cannot add beginner classes one year and expect students to be ready to use it the following year. Arabic, for example, was added in 2005 at UCI. Although Arabic classes have been well-enrolled since they were added, limitations prevent the school of humanities from adding Arabic as a major or minor.

“There are no plans to add a minor or major, in part because of the budgetary situation, and in part because a minor or major requires regular faculty members to create the curriculum and teach the courses,” said Glenn Levine, German Language Program director and associate professor.

Despite the difficulties, Lefebvre said that Russian culture and literature classes are still popular at UCI, and that many students who study the Russian language choose to move toward a minor. Schwegler said that the number of undergraduate students in the Spanish and Portuguese department has, in fact, increased by about 80 percent, and the department has received permission to hire a fulltime tenure-track oriented faculty in literature with a concentration on Mexico, who should be hired by mid-February.

Additionally, the size of the language classes is not indicative of the popularity of the class but rather the nature of teaching language. According to Levine, teaching language in a small group is essential for effective learning at all levels in order to reach intermediate or advanced proficiency, even at the upper-division literature and culture level.

Although there is sometimes resistance to studying language, those who are passionate and driven tend to excel in their studies, leading them to educational and occupational opportunities.

The bonus is also on language educators to teach from a more analytical perspective that does not only appeal to those interested in literature but to any student at the university who realizes the global importance and opportunity of language.