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New language programs yield lackluster results

Kate Fridley, News Editor
December 5, 2013 • 1,198 views

Although St. Olaf touts its commitment to an inclusive and globally-minded community, many students feel that the college has not done enough to incorporate other cultures and languages into its curriculum. Language courses in particular offer an excellent tool for promoting cultural education and diversity. However, St. Olaf’s inclusion of other languages, Arabic in particular, is greatly lacking.

St. Olaf’s Arabic classes make up part of the Alternative Language Studies Option (ALSO), a three-year-old pilot program that also offers Korean and Italian. In theory, the pilot could gauge student interest and determine if incentive exists to install a permanent language curriculum.

ALSO’s very structure precludes any accurate measurement of student interest. To qualify for the program, students must first complete their foreign language (FOL) general education requirement. This leaves the program open only to students who happen to have extra space for it in their schedules. Those without this luxury will not have time to enroll in the many language courses necessary to reach a more advanced proficiency level before they graduate.

On top of this, the bulk of Arabic classroom teaching hours are handled by a single Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant rather than a permanent faculty, and the class structure requires students to learn much of the material independently. Education in any language demands a certain level of guided learning. Minimal direction and a lack of an experienced faculty is not the optimal strategy for language instruction.

St. Olaf was on the right track when it created ALSO, but now it must go a step further and place Arabic at the same level as other standard languages like Spanish, German and French. ALSO is an adequate temporary measure but would greatly underserve its students in the long run. My hope is that it functions as a stepping stone to a permanent program. Undoubtedly, such a program would generate much higher student interest than the current option. Investment in a solid Arabic and Middle Eastern studies department would also attract prospective students from interesting backgrounds who are seeking diverse experiences.

From what I have observed, enrollment in ALSO courses dwindles throughout the semester, especially at the beginning levels. I have spoken to a number of students who express interest in learning Arabic but remain wary of a program still in its developing stages. This discouraging enrollment history grossly underestimates the level of interest a full-fledged program would draw. ALSO is better than no Arabic program, as it serves as students’ only on-campus option, but the time has come for the college to expand it.

Arabic is a historically neglected language in the U.S. given our country’s extended political involvement in Arab and Muslim states. Approximately 300 million people worldwide speak Arabic as their native language. It serves as a sacred language for more than one billion. St. Olaf cannot hope to mold its students into globally-minded leaders if it fails to educate them on such an essential language and group of cultures.

Skeptics argue that Arabic in particular is difficult and impractical to teach at the undergraduate level. However, while studying abroad I met countless successful students – all representing schools with academic reputations comparable to St. Olaf’s – who convinced me otherwise. The success of Carleton’s program also proves that effective and affordable undergraduate Arabic instruction is feasible.

Some of St. Olaf’s peer institutions are aware of this and have already developed successful programs. By neglecting its Arabic program, St. Olaf falls behind these schools and forgoes an opportunity for leadership in a growing field.

The most effective action students can take to ameliorate the alternative languages situation at St. Olaf is to express their interest in a permanent program to the administration. While I am less familiar with the Korean and Italian programs, the Middle Eastern studies faculty is aware of the Arabic program’s potential for improvement. However, in order to make real change, the feedback must come from students.

Providing Oles with a global perspective is an integral part of St. Olaf’s mission statement. We should not ignore this aspect of our identity. St. Olaf needs an Arabic program – with a guided and rigorous curriculum and a permanent faculty – that students may enroll in as early as their first year so that they have a chance to attain a higher proficiency level. I encourage students to speak out about this fact.

News Editor Kate Fridley ’14 is from Apple Valley, Minn. She majors in political science with concentrations in Middle Eastern studies and management studies.


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