Curriculum Analysis — Foreign Language Department

Harvard News 1/16/84–Editorial – CURRICULUM ANALYSIS: PART 5

By E. Randol Schoenberg, Editor-in-Chief and Bart Aronson, Features Editor

The Harvard News concludes its Curriculum Analysis with a two-part examination of the Foreign Language Department. Part I will discuss some of the deficiencies in the seventh grade Phenomenon of Language course, while Part II will focus on the possibility of adding German to the four existing language alternatives.

The Foreign Language Department, Part I

The Phenomenon of Language course (P of L hereafter) was introduced at Harvard in 1978, by then-Foreign Language department chairman David Florian. The course, in brief, works this way: students are introduced to the dynamics of language, and its association with culture and society, through a quarter of Latin study. The second and third quarters are given over to five-week units of Spanish, French and Russian. The exposure to these four languages is supposed to give the seventh grader a basic understanding of language dynamics, and enough background to choose the language he will study. On balance, we contend that the value of the choice is negligible compared to the harm the P and L course may be causing.

Advanced Placement scores are not an infallible index to student performance; however, they are instructive. The number of people taking the Spanish language A.P., has gone from one to thirty-three in three years; during the same time period, the pass rate has gone from 100% to 57%. Statistics for the French language A.P. are even more discouraging; the number of people taking that test has gone from six to seventeen in three years, and the pass rate has dropped from 66% to 23%. Moreover, no Harvard student earned a 4 or 5 on the 1983 French language A.P. Comparisons are dangerous; still, we will make two. First, these pass rates are significantly lower than the pass rates for Harvard students on other Å.P. tests. Second, Westlake School students consistently achieve a 60% (and higher) pass rate on the A.P. language tests. Why the difference? Rejecting the possibility that Westlake’s Language department and/or program is significantly superior to Harvard’s, the main difference is that Westlake students have another year of language study going into the A.P.:   They choose their language upon entering Westlake No one can prove positively that this extra year makes the difference; still, the numbers are compelling. The focus of this part of the editorial will be the P and L course.

The P of L course was introduced at Harvard, and as a result, the community is naturally prejudiced in its favor. Furthermore, the course claims for itself some lofty goals: according to the catalogue, “the Lower School Program stresses an awareness of language or a phenomenon of communication and its impact on human perception of the world.” We believe that a modified version of the P of L course could go as far as the current course in meeting these lofty goals and, at the same time, add nearly a year of language study to a student’s program. Furthermore, we believe we would not significantly sacrifice a student’s opportunity to make an informed choice. Finally, one must remember that the mere fact that the course is an innovation is a neutral one, and the course deserves to be examined.

We propose that the course be modified in this way: the first quarter would remain the same, with emphasis on the dynamics of language in general and Latin in particular. The last week of the past quarter could be given over to exposing students to the sounds of Spanish, French, and Russian. Students would then choose their language, and being to study it after the Christmas vacation.

The P of L course claims that giving students exposure to the three languages offered allows them to make an informed choice about the language they will study. First, many students choose the language they will study before they take the abbreviated survey. Second, if students can learn as much about the language structurally through Latin as they can through the study of the language itself (as we argue below), then they need only a brief exposure to the sound of the language to make an informed choice. Third and finally, the choice per se is not inherently more valuable than adding nearly a year to a student’s knowledge of the language.

There are two main structural differences between English and the languages offered at Harvard: case endings (and their effect on word order) and gender. Latin has both. Students can be exposed to case endings and gender, and begin to learn how to manipulate them, during the quarter of Latin To then spend fifteen weeks showing them that Spanish, French, and Russian also have case endings and gender seems redundant. Furthermore, French and Spanish sound much like, and are structurally based on Latin, and Russian is structurally similar to Latin . It would appear that a brief exposure to the unfamiliar Cyrillic alphabet would be sufficient to acquaint seventh graders with the languages offered; anything else seems unnecessary.

Finally, the P of L course claims to familiarize students with the cultures which shape the languages studied. But the time to do this is very limited, and we contend students would gain more by an in-depth exposure to one culture, than a brief, sketchy exposure to three.

Even if the course we propose does not meet all the goals set by the P of L course, we would still find justification for change. Ultimately, the goal of the language program should be to teach students to communicate, through both the written and spoken word, in another language, and to expose students to the culture behind the language in the process. These practical goals seem more valuable and more attainable than the lofty goals of the P of L course. Furthermore, though assigning courses between first and second quarter may be difficult, computers (See Dec. 4 issue ‘Supplement’) are doing amazing things these days.

Part II

Seven years ago, Harvard’s Latin teacher left the school, having taught all of the Latin sections for many years. After his retirement, several students wrote a petition asking for a German course to replace Latin. The Language Department examined the proposal and found that many people signed the petition but were not willing to sign for a German course. Harvard hired a new Latin teacher, mainly because they felt that not enough Harvard students actually wanted to take German. Since then, Latin, Russian, French, and Spanish courses have maintained sufficient interest to justify their existence. There are, however, several compelling reasons to include German in the Foreign Language curriculum.

Although less people speak German than Spanish, French, or Russian, it is nevertheless a very valuable language for Harvard students. German is the sister language of English: the two are very closely related in vocabulary and structure due to their common etymological history. Therefore, it would add to a student’s understanding of his own language to study German.

In practical applications, German is a least as valuable as any other language—if not more so. In the scientific world, German is very prominent, and the accomplishments of German scientists, including Leibnitz, Planck, Gauss, and Einstein are the most significant in modern history. Our own American engineering excellence came about as a result of the mass exodus of German scientists fleeing Hitler during W.W. II. Freud, Jung, and Adler singlehandedly transformed the way we look at the human mind.

But it is more likely that Harvard students will come into contact with the cultural influence of the German language. German composers have dominated classical music history. In literature, German writers have contributed the development of political and philosophical systems. Marx, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Nietzsche are perhaps the most important. In literature, no one can dismiss the grandeur of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, and Mann. German is at the heart of our western cultural tradition.

However, the value of German as a language has never been denied by the Foreign Language Department. They have instead used three other reasons to deny German a chance at Harvard. First, there is the assumption that there would not be enough students interested in German to fill a full class. Unfortunately, there have been no recent polls to justify the department’s claim of German’s unpopularity. On the contrary, the last year’s curriculum poll showed German to be the one class that most Juniors and Seniors thought Harvard lacked. Whether this poll proves that students would take German is debatable, but it does show a significant interest that should be tested.

Second, the department is worried about the effect that adding a language would have on the other languages offered. According to Mr. John Smith, “There is a correlation between the size of the school and the number of languages that we can offer.” Right now, all four languages are attracting enough people to justify their existence.   The fear of the department is that instead of having two good sized classes of Russian and Latin, there would be three undersized classes in German, Russian, and Latin. Five languages are not too many for a school of Harvard’s size. Assuming a class size of 15-20 people, 6-8 sections are possible. One section of German would not eliminate the possibility of filling classes in the other four languages.

The third and final problem is that of adding a new teacher to the staff. This problem is solvable provided the Board of Trustees is willing to pay an additional salary. Considering the value of the new teacher, this price cannot be too much.

German is a particularly valuable language. Its scientific and cultural importance is undeniable. The obstacles to creating a new course are clearly not insurmountable. Finally, it seems unfair and unwise to deny Harvard students the study of the language of their choice, if indeed German is the choice of a sufficient number of students.

Leave a Reply