In the aggregate, Amherst College students are no exception to this national trend; this is not their fault. Although some truly accomplished students of foreign language matriculate at Amherst College, they are relatively rare. Moreover, increasing the minimal training required of our applicants could be viewed as discriminatory. Only the wealthiest school districts invest seriously in foreign language and culture instruction.
Even if such concerns about discrimination could be properly addressed, it would be difficult for admissions officers to fully assess the accomplishments of applicants in foreign languages. Due to the decentralization of secondary education in the U.S., the quality of foreign language instruction varies considerably from school to school. Standardized achievement tests are unfortunately of limited value. The AP and SAT II tests are fairly effective measures of reading comprehension skills, but they reveal little about the levels of skill that the students have achieved in listening comprehension, writing and speaking. Even if such exams were effective measures of achievement in foreign languages, not all applicants submit test scores in these areas of study. Consequently, Amherst College matriculants have had, overall, less preparation in foreign languages than they have had in English, science and math.
The problem that this creates- one that is faced by educators nationally-is compounded by the fact that after a student completes an undergraduate education, his or her life becomes too complicated to take the time to master a foreign language. The time commitment needed to complete a graduate school program, to begin a career or to engage in an active family life makes it very difficult to immerse oneself sufficiently in a foreign language to retain it. It is difficult to convince a boss that it is necessary to put one’s career on hold in order to go off to Paris to master French. In graduate school, one rarely has time to dedicate to the study of a foreign language; the workload is much too heavy to do so.
In short, foreign language learning is squeezed from both ends of the undergraduate career. For most Americans, the undergraduate years are the only opportunity to learn a foreign language and gain a familiarity with a foreign culture.
Therein lies the value of the total immersion programs known as “Junior Year Abroad,” especially when students go to a country where English is not the dominant language. Quite simply, these programs allow for the accelerated acquisition of foreign language skills and are particularly effective in improving the oral and listening comprehension skills, the hardest to acquire in a traditional classroom setting. An example using simple math can demonstrate the effectiveness of these programs. My classes in French last 50 minutes per session and meet three times per week. Usually there are approximately 20 students. That means that if the professor says nothing at all, each student is allotted 2.5 minutes per session to say something in the foreign language. Over a fourteen-week semester, that adds up to a total of 1 hour and 45 minutes of speaking time per student. In reality, the professor does have to speak, although the most effective instructors try to maximize student participation in discussion. By my estimate, for most individual students, the total amount of speech that they produce in class is something less than an hour per semester. That amount of practice can easily be surpassed over a couple of days in a total-immersion environment. Twenty-four hour exposure to the spoken and written language also has an appreciable effect on the retention of vocabulary and basic cultural facts. Despite the fact that students studying abroad are essentially engaged in learning all day long, some faculty outside of foreign language departments believe that there is little value in the study abroad experience and maintain, without justification, that these programs are not academically rigorous. This myth is most unfortunate, since the intense, accelerated learning that this experience provides is one of the ways that American students can compensate for the limitations of secondary school foreign language training.
For those students who choose to study abroad, obstacles remain to gaining true proficiency in the target language. To squeeze the acquisition of a language into the undergraduate years requires detailed planning. To earn admission to most study abroad programs, applicants must normally complete a language course at the fourth-semester college level. This minimum requirement is justified, because in order for the study abroad experience to be effective, the student must have obtained minimal competence in the language before departure. If the student is still struggling with basic verb conjugations upon arrival in France, Germany or Spain, it will take a month or longer for her or him to start engaging in the kind of practice that leads to real fluency. This situation presents a serious problem for departments that teach languages not normally taught in secondary schools. If a student is to study abroad in a country where such languages are spoken, he or she must begin intensive study of that language during the first semester of their first year in college. Few first-year students are aware of this necessity. Even among those who are aware of the problem, relatively few matriculants at Amherst College are prepared to make that commitment so early in their academic careers.
Much to the credit of the Amherst College Trustees, they have recognized both the value of study abroad and the financial obstacles that it presents to disadvantaged students. A generous, long-standing financial aid policy has made study abroad accessible to all of our students, regardless of their economic background. No Amherst College student should allow financial constraints to inhibit his or her desire to study abroad.
There are very few students at Amherst College, regardless of major, who would be unable to integrate a study abroad experience into their academic careers. With a little advance planning, almost all students can be accommodated, including pre-med students. Ideally, in an era of diverse modes of globalization and an urgent need for cross-cultural understanding, all Amherst College students could benefit from a study abroad experience.
For those who have already elected to study abroad next year, the deadline to file the required “Proposal to Study Abroad” form at the Career Center is Friday, March 14th. Don’t hesitate. Study abroad should be done during the undergraduate years. It might be your last chance to acquire a foreign language. There is no better time in one’s life to do it.
Paul Rockwell is a professor of French at the College.