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The language requirement at UMBC
By Aviva Zapinsky
The language requirement is one of the most passionately contested and firmly detested GEPs at UMBC.
Many of the classes for the General Education Program have become touchy subjects that students feel they can’t speak out on. Many students feel frustrated with these classes; especially the language requirement that feels redundant as culture courses are one of the other GEP requirements.
Students must take up to a 201 level language, but most students don’t gain fluency. To the administration, that’s not the point.
According to Dr. Diane Lee, Vice Provost for Undergraduate and Professional Education, “students who meet the 201 level of proficiency would gain meaningfully in cultural competence. For many faculty, cultural competence is an essential component of a distinctive undergraduate education, one fitting an honors university. Given our global society and mission, such a requirement was also deemed necessary.”
Dr. Arthur Johnson, Provost Emeritus (1998-2008) and a political science professor, who was the provost when the general education requirements were revised, expanded on this. “The general education program was modified in 2000, but the language requirement was not new then. It was modified to reduce hurdles in satisfying these requirements. For example, students can get credit for high school language classes. It is now more accommodating for students,” he said.
Dr. Johnson said UMBC has this requirement because, “most students are getting a liberal arts degree: they are not supposed to take courses only in their major, but in a broad variety of classes.”
In addition, Dr. Elaine Rusinko, the undergraduate program director in Modern Languages, Linguistics and Intercultural Communication and associate professor in the linguistics department, says the language classes are “more than just speaking. “
“We aren’t expecting fluency, but we want students to gain a recognition of how people in other cultures think and socialize, and to learn about their values. That’s built into the language classes at UMBC. If the students ever need that language, it will come back faster. If students are just trying to get through the class memorizing verbs that they will forget the next semester they are missing the point,” she said.
Cultural awareness – gaining the knowledge that there are other peoples who speak other languages out there – seems like a valid reason to have language courses.
But is that not what the culture requirement fulfills? This makes the language classes unnecessary. Although, according to Dr. Johnson, “We want to train students to think critically in a broad manner, so we don’t just approach it one way.”
Still, there is overlap.
Many students feel that these classes are a waste of their time and money. The beginning post on the foreign language requirement discussion page on myUMBC, written by Timothy Hayes, a junior history major: “Does anyone else think the foreign language requirement at this school is insane? I have a job and bills and responsibilities. I don’t have time to take three courses on a foreign language.”
Students feel frustrated: they are not gaining fluency – these classes become ones that they just have to get through, classes that are redundant, classes that, to them, are useless.
According to the administration, the language requirement is a valuable addition to the curriculum, befitting an honors university and a liberal arts education – matriculating well-rounded individuals. Many of the GEP requirements overlap, none more so than the language and culture courses.
This leaves students feeling that they are wasting their time, and it seems that they are.