Is the One-Year Language Requirement Outmoded?

Students arrive at Stanford with a myriad of language backgrounds, some boasting trilingualism, others representing only a strong command of the English language. Regardless, we all arrive our freshman year during NSO required to take a language placement test and funneled into different levels of our respective foreign languages.

With an online written portion and an oral exam, Stanford has created a way to determine the level of our foreign language proficiency.  If we do not place out, we must fulfill the one-year requirement through supplemental classes at Stanford. However, after six weeks in Santiago, Chile for my study abroad experience and seeing the product of the one-year language requirement, I have to question the purpose and success of the language program at Stanford.

The Santiago program requires students to have taken one year of Spanish prior to arrival. On site, students are separated into two different Spanish levels, 12S and 13S, based on the last language class they had taken at Stanford. Rather quickly did I recognize the poor distribution of the classes: the more difficult class, 13S, had some students whose level of Spanish proficiency was inferior to that of students in 12S, a less advanced course than 13S. Shocked, I took a step back to analyze why this had happened. Supposedly, Stanford’s foreign language placement methods ensure maximum learning potential. I realized that the problem stemmed from the way we had been placed: not based on our conversational proficiency, but on our last Spanish class enrollment. Beyond this, I have realized that the initial placement is erroneous to a great extent.

The written portion of the test is based on honesty, but I question the number of students who do not use a little help from Google Translate. The oral part of the exam is the most controversial portion in my eyes. Approximately ten students are placed in a room to take the test at the same time. Nerves are high and distraction is ample as students chatter away in the room making it difficult to focus on your own responses. These tests are irreversible: once you are placed, it is very difficult to question your placement and contest your case.

I have found that students become nervous and are placed in lower levels of Spanish than they actually should be.  This is unfortunate as the words of a nervous and distracted student that are recorded often result in five extra units of work. My Spanish professor once told me in class: “had you spoken this way during the oral exam, you would have placed out” and yet, I could not drop the class. This is the bureaucracy of the Spanish language department and the bureaucracy of the language departments at Stanford in general. In fact, classes would be more evenly distributed and accurately reflect students’ levels if professors took the time during the first week of the quarter to interview students for a ten-minute period to insure against the possibility of incorrect class placement.

In addition to my concern about incorrect placement, I question whether or not the one-year foreign language requirement itself actually makes a dent in a student’s ability to converse, and whether the requirement should even exist. My time here in Santiago has shown me that, indeed, the one-year language requirement is sufficient enough to make your way around a city and begin to immerse yourself enough to continue the learning process. However, there has to be a desire to want to immerse yourself and to want to learn a language. Language classes are about participation and communication and the motivation that comes with learning an entirely new language. Although this can be forced with a participation grade in foreign language classes, many students do not respond to this kind of incentive. As a result, students are reluctant to participate, holding back the rest of the class and diminishing the potential for advancement, ultimately hindering the progress of those who actually want to learn a language. This phenomenon makes me wonder whether or not Stanford should have a language requirement at all, unless one is studying abroad.

Students must realize the impact of a language on their own, and whether or not this would be a skill they would want to develop. If students go abroad, requiring language classes makes sense. However, in order to maximize learning, students have to be placed properly. And if students do not want to go abroad, Stanford should reconsider the impact of forcing individuals to study a language when they truly have no desire to.

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