Language Losses on College Campuses

A few years ago, the University of Guam underwent a long discussion over the changing of its GE or General Education requirements for students. The intent was to update the system and lower the overall credit requirement. No system reform can ever be perfect or make all stakeholders happy, but this overhaul seemed to be strangely arbitrary and disconnected from UOG's mission, purpose or advantages as an educational institution.

For most of its existence, you could argue that UOG was a colonial institution. You could argue that it continues to be one today. When I say colonial, it is not meant to describe that it came from the outside and therefore it implicitly bad. This is something that has been and can continue to be argued over forever. When I say colonial, I am invoking it to refer to the type of education it provides. How it is rooted and what it is meant to do. All cultures have some form of education and that education comes with different intents, to teach certain things, to dislodge certain ideas and offer up others. To provide the means for someone to confront the challenges of life from a stronger position that previously. 

Educational systems brought in to the islands over the past few centuries were intended to actively reduce the amount of languages spoken here. They were intended to dramatically reduce the understanding of the people of these islands about their own culture, history and environment. 

It has been a long journey coming to terms with that legacy. But what is most frustrating is how that legacy continues to be perpetuated, sometimes in thoughtless and careless ways. We know this colonial character to education in the islands, we known it was wrong, it created generations of trauma and feelings of alienation and desires for assimilation, so why aren't we changing it? Why is it that in the past generation or so, the only substantive change to Guam's educational system is the inclusion of a minute amount of Chamoru language and culture classes and the celebration of Chamoru month?

Or at the University of Guam where this conversation is much more lively, where the lessons of the past are to be learned in more pronounced ways, we see the same problems. UOG has long been a colonial institution, but it doesn't need to continue to be one. UOG and many of its faculty and administrators struggle with the institution being far away from the normal centers of academic inquiry and power. That Guam is at a disadvantage because of where it is located and what it is stuck with in terms of region and resources. But these things are only disadvantages it assuming the supremacy of an American stye, Western educational system of higher education. The diversity of cultures in the region and the way in which Chamoru language and culture can bee promoted and preserved at UOG are key advantages that UOG can use to develop a stronger relationship, but how much time is spent weakening this in the name of academia? How much time is spent trying to deny this and concoct new generations of colonial fantasies? 

The reduction of second language learning requirements at UOG as part of the GE restructuring is a perfect example of this. I was biased against this change of course because I teach Chamoru and I recognized that this GE change would lead to less language classes being taught overall and therefore less ability for the Chamorro Studies program to grow. But I was against it because of the larger intellectual argument. It made a clear point about UOG and its place in the Pacific, it reinforced the colonial roots, it watered them, it found a new way to give life to them, so that rather than grow with the community, the institution would continue to choke life from it. It was an unfortunate time and a poorly shaped debate. We can see how it has negatively impacted a number of different programs already and created chaos in terms of advising students, by replacing a relatively straight-forward GE system, with one that is needlessly confusing. 

I was brought back to these thoughts when I was forwarded this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education and how a "stunning" number of foreign language programs across the US have been cut or reduced. 

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Colleges Lose a 'Stunning' 651 Foreign-Language Programs in 3 Years
by Steven Johnson
Chronicle of Higher Education
January 22, 2019

Colleges closed more than 650 foreign-language programs in a recent three-year period, according to a forthcoming report from the Modern Language Association. 
The new data, which the MLA shared with The Chronicle, suggest that it took several years for the full effect of the recession of 2008 to hit foreign-language programs. Higher education, in aggregate, lost just one such program from 2009 to 2013. From 2013 to 2016, it lost 651, said Dennis Looney, director of programs at the MLA.
The net loss is a "stunning statistic" that may illustrate how extensively colleges designated foreign-language programs for cuts, said Looney, who also directs the MLA's Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. "I don't want to call it a trend yet," he said, but "everything has really accelerated."
"I'm really concerned that in 2020," when the MLA plans to conduct its next survey, "that number is going to be higher," he added.
Spanish, which still accounts for about half of enrollments in languages other than English, had a net loss of 118 programs. French lost 129, German 86, and Italian 56. Among the 15 most commonly taught languages, only American Sign Language, biblical Hebrew, and Korean saw a net increase in programs, Looney said.

The MLA defines a language program loosely, as language instruction offered by an institution, not necessarily as a degree-granting department or formal unit. For instance, if a college offers German one year and not the next, it has lost one language program.
The statistics on program closures, along with other data on foreign-language education, will be published in an expanded report now being finished, said Looney, who helps write the enrollment reports.
The association has seen cause for concern in the past. In 2007 it released a sweeping reporton the "crisis" of foreign-language education. That report reflected anxiety — in the national-security establishment in particular — about Americans' inability to communicate with the world in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the wars that have followed. Academe "scrambled," the MLA report said, to beef up language offerings.
But the association's recent reports, along with the new data, suggest that the economic crisis has hampered those efforts.
The decline in programs coincides with a decline in the number of students signing up for foreign-language courses. The 9.2-percent drop in enrollments from 2013 to 2016 was the second-largest on record, according to the MLA's "short report" of its findings, released last year. Measured since 2009, the decline is 15.3 percent. That suggests a "trend rather than a blip," the report said. Overall, indicators "provide little reason for optimism."
The causes of the decline in enrollments and programs, beyond the economic crunch, remain subject to debate. Some academics point to colleges' prioritization of STEM programs, or to the long-term effects of colleges' dropping language requirements. That began happening in the 1970s, Looney said. The MLA is starting to gather data on those requirements as it continues to track institutions' language enrollments.
And colleges have been hit unevenly, past MLA research shows. Two-year institutions have disproportionately shed enrollments in foreign-language courses. "The causes of — and solutions to — this trend are beyond the scope of the MLA enrollments reports," the 2018 report said, "but we hope they will be explored by others in the field."
That report also called for more research into whether declines in government funding for international education may have influenced the most recent drop in enrollments.
A decline in enrollments may itself trigger cuts in programs, said Paul Sandrock, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. If enrollments dip below a certain number, perhaps because of changing student preferences and goals, he said, "colleges look at return on investment."
A 2014 report showed that the recession hit foreign-language degree programs harder than it did many other humanities programs. In the immediate aftermath, colleges cut 12 percentof foreign-language degree programs, compared with 6 percent of all degree programs.
Follow Steven Johnson on Twitter at @stetyjohn, or email him at steve.johnson@chronicle.com.

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