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Battling Babel
As the language needs of Yale students change with the times, the University prepares to better coordinate foreign-language instruction.

On any given day, in rooms across the Yale campus, students and teachers are speaking in Spanish, chatting in Chinese, pontificating in Polish, yakking in Yoruba, and otherwise making themselves heard in as many as 48 languages. The sound of foreign tongues at Yale, of course, is nothing new. But the languages that are studied—and the reasons for doing so—are constantly shifting.

Scholars still learn Greek, Latin, French, and German as a base for literary studies, but they are joined increasingly by those whose interests lie in the social sciences or other areas. And as “globalization” makes language study ever more critical, Yale is launching a Center for Language Study that will bring together language teachers from nine language and literature departments, the linguistics department, and the graduate and professional schools, to share common concerns and resources.


The new center will remedy the perception of language teaching as “a secondary activity of lesser importance.”

“The existing state of language study at Yale is like t he world after the Tower of Babel,” says Yale College dean Richard Brodhead. “Everything is restricted by departments. The people teaching Spanish in the medical school have had no contact with the Spanish department.”

The new center, funded in part by a $1.3-million grant from the Mellon Foundation, should improve the situation. When a director is hired later this spring, he or she will coordinate the allocation of resources and head up efforts both to improve language-teaching technology and promote communication among language instructors about pedagogy.

The director will find at Yale a community of language learners that differs sharply from that of 50 years ago, when the study of great literature was virtually the only reason to teach languages in a university setting. But now, with Yale’s global emphasis growing, language study has taken on a new importance as a means of understanding nations and cultures.

“The number of forms of study that require foreign languages is huge,” says Brodhead. “It includes literature, politics and international relations, history, law, management, and environmental studies. The educated person is under more obligation than ever to know foreign languages.”

Some of the most important new initiatives in language instruction, in fact, have emerged not from the University’s language and literature departments but from the Center for International and Area Studies and its area-studies councils. The center has helped establish new programs to aid scholars with international interests and less-common language needs. For example, the Southeast Asian Studies Committee, which includes representatives from the anthropology, political science, and history departments, was the driving force behind the reintroduction of Indonesian courses at Yale in 1989. The Committee funded the courses during a start-up phase until the department of East Asian languages and literatures took over. Similarly, the East Asian Studies Council funds tutorials for students needing instruction in specific dialects, and the Russian and East European Studies Council helped fund the introduction of Polish courses in 1988. Such assistance is crucial to programs in languages that do not have a large academic or literary following in this country.

The constituency for such languages includes graduate students and, increasingly, professional students as well. “There was always a smattering of interest in languages in the professional schools, but now it’s really growing,” says YCIAS associate director Nancy Ruther, who is on the committee that will help shape the new center. The School of Medicine has been offering its own classes in Spanish so that doctors will be able to communicate in what is rapidly becoming an important second American language. And the increasingly global interests of students in the Schools of Management, Law, and Forestry and Environmental Studies has created a demand for all kinds of specialized language instruction.

While these developments represent a shift, they are not entirely without precedent. Yale emphasized pragmatic language teaching in the 19th century when it was training missionaries for work overseas, and World War II and its aftermath brought a new interest in languages for defense.

Other new language customers are looking not necessarily to where they are going, but to where they came from. The growing diversity of the Yale student body has resulted in a demand by undergraduates for instruction in the languages of their ethnic backgrounds. It was through the efforts of Jewish students, for example, that courses in modern Hebrew were added to the curriculum in the 1970s. While ancient or biblical Hebrew—studied mostly as part of a Christian education—has been part of Yale’s curriculum since the 1700s, the modern language had until recently been offered only briefly at the turn of the 20th century. “Hebrew is our success story,” says Near East Languages chair Benjamin Foster. “It’s really owing to the undergraduates 100 percent that we have this program.” Students often take the courses to prepare for travel or study in Israel.

More recently, students of Korean and Indian heritage have called for instruction in their nations” languages. “The Korean student body helped to bring back Korean,” says East Asian Languages and Literatures chair Edward Kamens, who also chairs the committee for the new Center for Language Study, “both because it is their heritage language and because it is a new economic power.” Introduced in 1990, the program in Korean has expanded to a three-year sequence, with over 100 students enrolled. But Kamens says the program, which is offered in the East Asian Languages and Literatures department, is difficult to sustain without related literature or cultural studies courses. There is only one full-time faculty member teaching Korean, and since there is no graduate program, the department must find language instructors among Korean graduate students in other programs.

Members of Yale’s undergraduate South Asian Society (SAS) have been lobbying the University in recent years to provide courses in Hindi, the third most common language in the world. But the group has not yet been able to raise the $30,000 needed for a two-year sequence of instruction, which is the minimum needed for the courses to fulfill Yale’s language requirement. In the meantime, a small band of students—about two-thirds of them of Indian descent—arranged for an independent study course last fall through the linguistics department. The course was taught by a researcher from the School of Medicine who volunteered his time. But SAS leaders say they will continue to press the University to provide formal instruction in Hindi.

Even with established languages such as Chinese, Spanish, and Italian, there is an increasing number of students signing up to learn the languages of their parents or grandparents. “Americans of Italian descent are rediscovering their heritage,” says Italian chairman Paolo Valesio. “Their families may not have spoken Italian growing up, or they have spoken a zone dialect. Italians are very sensitive to accent and class, like the British, and many immigrants didn’t want to teach zone dialects to their children.” Now those children are turning to Valesio’s department when they want to explore their culture.

There are even special introductory courses in Chinese, Russian, and Spanish for students who grew up hearing and speaking those languages at home but whose formal education has been in English. After they become proficient in reading and writing, they join students who have had more conventional introductions for advanced courses.

But while ethnic pride and globalization have undoubtedly had an impact on language enrollment, the biggest boon for language departments has been the institution of an undergraduate language requirement beginning with the Class of 1987. Total registrations in language courses have risen by 20 percent since the requirement was put in place. While enrollment in many languages shot up initially as a result of the requirement, the most lasting and dramatic growth has been in Spanish, where course registrations have doubled since 1983.

The most obvious reason for such a rush to Spanish is its increasing usefulness in the United States. But Spanish department chair Maria Rosa Menocal thinks that’s only part of the picture. “I believe that a Yale undergraduate who chooses to take Spanish is not taking it for purely pragmatic reasons,” says Menocal. “A very high percentage of those students are doing so because of a very important shift in the prestige of the Spanish literary tradition.” She cites Yale’s reputation as a powerhouse in Latin-American literature and the explosion of literary interest in such authors as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The other program that has sustained dramatic growth in the last several years is Chinese. Enrollment in Chinese hovered in the 200s until 1994-95, when it started a rapid climb to 403 course registrations last year. The reasons are not entirely clear, but the combination of Chinese-American students interested in their heritage and students looking to business opportunities in China has surely played a part. Japanese enjoyed a similarly sharp rise in the 1980s, when Japan’s economy was strong, but enrollment has since declined slowly.

The gains in Spanish and Chinese (and, to a lesser extent, Italian) have occurred alongside a slide in enrollments in French and German, the modern languages closest to the traditional academic’s heart. (In 1989, Spanish overtook French as the most subscribed language.) French chair Christopher Miller says that his department’s enrollment is “lower than 20 years ago. It’s no longer the case that French is implicitly required for every person of culture.” But in contrast to national statistics, which show French in sharp decline, Yale’s numbers have stabilized at around 1,000 course registrations.

“We"ve been having small increases in the last few years,” says Miller. “We feel we"re in good shape.” He attributes the department’s relative good health to its strong reputation and to the growth of interest in Francophone literature from Africa and the Caribbean.


The new German Studies major has “established a community of students strongly committed to the German language.”

The German department began seeing its numbers drop after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, from a high of 724 course registrations in 1990-91 to 437 last year. Similarly, enrollment in Russian classes, which peaked at 501 toward the Cold War’s end in 1986-87, fell to 294 by last year. In both cases, world events seem to have affected demand—students no longer imagined doing battle with the Soviet Bloc in foreign service or intelligence careers.

So what does a language department do when faced with such declines? “It meant we had to restructure ourselves and focus on why Russian culture is worthy of study,” says Slavic Languages chairman Harvey Goldblatt. “It forced us to think about ways to attract more students. Our numbers are now on the increase, and we have increased enrollments, particularly in the larger survey courses taught in English.”

Such courses as the interdisciplinary “Russian Culture: The Modern Age” amount to a repositioning of the department as a source not just of language instruction and literary study, but more generally of Slavic culture, including history, politics, and sociology.

The department that has gone furthest in this area is German, which under former chair Cyrus Hamlin developed a new undergraduate major called German Studies. The major includes an introductory course on “German culture and thought,” required courses in German language and literature, and a choice of related courses from other departments such as history, linguistics, music, philosophy, and sociology.

“The older model was no longer viable,” says Hamlin. “This is a way of getting students who are committed to the German language but whose academic interests are not in literature to be able to make a major of it.”

New chair Brigitte Peucker says the German Studies major was developed not because of falling enrollments but in response to the growing influence of cultural studies in universities across the nation. “The junior faculty we"ve been hiring are ideally suited for German Studies, because it’s what’s being taught in universities now.”

To some extent, German Studies resembles the Classics department’s Classical Civilization major—a 30-year-old interdisciplinary course of study that combines Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and literature. Former Classics chair Heinrich Von Staden says that the Classical Civilization major helped save classics when students were beginning to bow out of the Classics major because of its stiff language requirements. Today, Classical Civilization includes a number of tremendously popular lecture courses, such as “The Age of Pericles” and Jerome Pollitt’s “Introduction to Greek Art.”

“The popular courses taught in English draw in a lot of students, and many of them find they want to take Latin or Greek as a result,” says Von Staden. But unlike Classical Civilization, German Studies has language requirements every bit as stringent as the traditional German major.

Other departments are keeping an eye on German Studies and considering developing interdisciplinary courses of study that will interest students who aren’t drawn in by the promise of reading Goethe, Proust, or Dante in the original tongues.

“We are seriously discussing an Italian Studies major,” says Paolo Valesio, “and we are looking at German Studies as a model. It would likely include courses in history, political science, and the history of art.” As alternatives to conventional literature courses, Valesio has already introduced a course in short story writing in Italian and a series of culturally-based courses on Italian cities.

French’s Christopher Miller is less convinced. “We"ve gone a certain distance toward an interdisciplinary major, but our main focus is still literature,” he says. “We"ve made adjustments, but we have enough students. We don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken.”

What does need fixing, department heads and administrators agree, is the lack of communication and coordination among the University’s many language instruction programs. Those who teach languages occupy a curious place both in their departments and in the University community. Usually, they are junior faculty or, more often, graduate students or “lectors” who are not part of the “ladder faculty” structure and are sometimes left out of decision-making. Moreover, says Edward Kamens, “language teaching and learning is often treated in departments as a secondary activity of lesser importance than the teaching of literature and training of graduate students.”

The Center for Language Study is intended to help remedy that situation by creating what committee member Maria Rosa Menocal calls “a second community for language teachers.

“Departments can become very vertical, talking only to each other,” explains Menocal. “The language-teaching core is boxed into this vertical shaft. The role of the language director would be to make it possible for people across language communities to talk to each other. It would say that language instruction was a different but equally valuable part of a department.”

The Center will accomplish this part of its mission by sponsoring seminars and colloquia where instructors can share ideas and methods that might be applicable to other languages. Or, as the proposal for the Mellon Foundation grant put it: “The Center will create a place where language-acquisition issues are the important issues, not menial prologues to what is “really interesting.”

Another important role of the Center and its director will be to consider what languages are being taught and which ones might be added. “Right now, there is no structure in place to decide the criteria for offering courses in languages that are not presently part of the curriculum—considering cost, threshold number, whether there are sufficient courses in related subjects,” says Kamens. “Nobody can carefully work through these questions and make decisions that create lasting solutions.”

Benjamin Foster puts it more bluntly. “There needs to be a place where these things are discussed free of money and turf issues,” he says. It is hoped that the new director of foreign language instruction, who will report to the provost, will be able to make informed decisions about the allocation of language resources and identify opportunities for greater efficiency.

Among those opportunities, unquestionably, is technology. The information revolution offers an array of new ways to learn languages beyond the reel-to-reel drill tapes of the language lab of yore. CD-ROMs and videos hold great promise as tools for improving language skills, and educators are looking to the Internet as a possible means of linking universities for collaborative efforts at teaching languages with small demand.

Brodhead and Kamens both stress that the Center should not be perceived as a threat to the sovereignty of language and literature departments, a reasonable concern in a time when some universities—including Cornell—have removed language-instruction courses from their parent departments and put them into new “modern language” departments. “Yale does not believe in breaking elementary language instruction off from the higher uses that such instruction leads toward,” said Brodhead when the Mellon Foundation grant was announced. “On the other hand. the new approach will improve our ability to address common issues of language study while also strengthening preparation for more advanced programs.”

In other words, if things go according to plan, the new Center will insure that in the future, instructors who teach over 40 different tongues are, on some level, speaking the same language.  the end





Non-English languages taught at Yale during 1995–96 and 1996–97

Chinese *
Czech *
Old English
French *
German *
Greek *
Hebrew *
Haitian Creole
Indonesian *
Italian *
Japanese *
Kiswahili *
Korean *
Latin *
Persian *
Polish *
Portugese *
Russian *
Spanish *
Yoruba *
Zulu *

* approved for fulfillment of undergraduate language requirement


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