Simineri: Expanding Language Programs

by Nicole Simineri | 11/12/15 7:35pm

For all the criticisms launched against our school recently, foreign language study is one area in which the College excels. Perhaps it is because of drill, the professors’ teaching styles, the language study abroad offerings or some combination of all of these. Whatever it is, I have never progressed so quickly and confidently in a foreign language than I have at Dartmouth, and I know many students who feel similarly. Still, the inflexibility of some of the College’s language programs is severely limiting. Administrators should strive to make foreign language study more flexible so that more students can access this experience that I so cherish.

Our foreign language study programs use the Rassias method, or what many Dartmouth students know notoriously as drill, which — excepting Latin and Greek — is mandatory for introductory language courses. Drill’s effectiveness is largely contingent on how well it is planned in alignment with the course material and on the instructor, or else it tends to become a mere regurgitation of barely intelligible sounds. When drill is done correctly, however, it establishes a foundation for that week’s course material and helps students learn to not only understand a foreign language but to also think quickly and respond efficiently in that language. Moreover, because drill is taught entirely by students, it is an opportunity to get to know more experienced students with similar interests. Drill also tends to be more flexible, giving students the chance to ask specific grammar and other language-related questions that there simply is not enough time to cover in class.

As beneficial as drill can be, the College’s emphasis on speaking is even more important. Reading and writing are covered as well, but you are expected to practice that on your own time and are provided with the materials necessary to do so. Like drill instructors, many first-year language professors also call on students randomly, so students are motivated to listen closely to their professors and to prepare themselves to reply. Albeit stressful, this teaching method combined with drill quickly taught me to absorb new vocabulary and grammar patterns and to craft that information into my own creative responses. When I finally went to Japan on the language study abroad program, the people I met often asked me how I spoke so well in a language I had studied for less than a year. I attribute much of my progress to this teaching style and the emphasis on speaking. The rest of my speedy progress I contribute to the LSA+. Living with a homestay family and taking Japanese courses at a Japanese university every day was taxing, but notably improved my language skills and gave me a level of confidence in speaking Japanese that I had never thought possible.

Still, the College’s course offerings — particularly for non-romance languages — are limited and rigid, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for students to access them. The first two levels of first-year language courses in French, Italian, German and Spanish are offered every term of the year except summer. Introductory classes in Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian, however, are offered only in the fall. If you are like me and only decide midway through your first fall term to study one of these languages, you have to wait a whole year to do so. This, combined with the D-Plan, makes it difficult to start non-Western-European languages — which comprise half of all modern foreign languages offered by the College — after your first year.

The LSA programs in these languages are likewise inflexible, with only one offered every year. To fulfill my dream of going to Japan on the LSA+, for example, I had to forego my sophomore summer. It is not a choice that I regret, but it is unfortunate that I had to make the choice at all. For this same reason, students often choose to quit foreign language study at Dartmouth altogether, since it is nearly impossible to fit with their D-Plans. Learning a foreign language is a remarkable experience that truly opens a whole new world of opportunities to have, people to meet and possibilities to explore — but as it currently stands, the College’s course offerings for non-Western-European languages are simply incompatible with the D-Plan, forcing some students to forego this great learning and life experience.

For a renowned institution of higher education, limited access to languages is unacceptable. Efforts must be made to mitigate this by making foreign language course offerings at least as flexible as the D-Plan which Dartmouth so proudly flaunts. I came to learn, so let me — let us.