The Language Requirement: A benefit to your UCR career?

By: Marijn Thijs

It is one of those topics that students generally love to hate: the Language Requirement. Commonly, students have a hard time completing this requirement in time or are not motivated to do so. Many have also failed an entrance exam to a language course at least once during their UCR career. So how do students deal with the problems that arise during these courses? Why do we even have a language requirement? And why has UCR structured the requirement the way it is?

I asked Dr. Anya Luscombe – the Head of Department for the Academic Core – why it is so important to overcome any obstacles with and participate in second language classes. “Learning languages opens doors. UCR is an international University College whose mission is to create global citizens. Learning languages to help us communicate with people from many different backgrounds is one of the key components of our international program. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said: ‘Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.’ This freely translates to ‘the barriers of my language are the barriers of my world.” Furthermore, Dr. Luscombe brings up another advantage of the language requirement: “For scholars, being able to access sources in several languages will enrich your research tremendously, at conferences and in research groups you will network more easily with people from around the world.”

Clearly, there are many great points to being bilingual or even trilingual, but there are some obstacles that students have to overcome in order to complete the requirement. A seventh semester student is currently completing the requirement: “UCR saw my summer course diploma as invalid after an internal miscommunication. I also once stepped out of a class, so I’m finishing it now.” Another seventh semester student told me he forgot most of the knowledge he acquired, leaving him struggling to make full sentences in the second language he studied.

Other students told me they have had trouble with the entrance exam. A third-semester student talked to me about how she was not allowed to take her entrance exam for French, even after trying three times; “I was never with the 25 selected people. Since I want to go on exchange I’m doing the 0-level now, which I feel is below my level.” Another third semester student complained about the fact she failed her Spanish 100 entrance exam after taking 5 years of Spanish in high school.

Dr. Luscombe reacted on these complaints about the difficulty of the entrance exams. She mentioned that, indeed, they discuss grammar, referring to the CEF (Common European Framework of languages). In her opinion, the amount of grammar is high, but not too high. She stressed the importance of good preparation. “Students can simply go to the library and get the relevant textbooks and practice. It is up to them if they fail to do so.” Dr. Luscombe also believes that people who are in a lower level class, because they failed their entrance exam of a higher level should work hard. “The student either isn’t taking responsibility for their own shortcomings, or underestimates the power he/she has to prepare carefully to attain a higher level.”

I interviewed a student who came up with a solution that specifically addresses some of the mentioned problems. Maud van Stijn, a fifth semester student, is convinced that the language requirement could use a different set-up. She suggests a change in the system inspired by the construction of the language requirement at other University Colleges. “The maximum required level for everyone is a 100-level. Even though you initially cannot reach the same proficiency, those who are genuinely interested in studying a second language can still do so. That can also improve the quality of the courses at higher level. I am strongly in favor of letting the classes reach full capacity by having all interested people take the entrance exam, to then select the best few from those who qualified.”

Maud addresses the problem of students that have to do a level that is too low for them: “You hear about people who have done summer courses in foreign countries that are not recognized and are still in a lower level. In addition, students have partaken in extensive courses in high school and have acquired a certain proficiency level, which should suffice to be place in a certain level at university. By looking more at these aspects, placement of students could become more specific.”

From this year onwards, the UCR management is discussing elements of such a set-up. The university recognizes the problems with the language requirement and tries to listen carefully to the complaints. Dr. Luscombe says, “We will test this in week eleven for French, and we are working together closely with the Academic Affairs Council to realize this. As of 2015, this will also apply to the other languages.” This is a step towards having more efficient, and more importantly, fuller language classes.

Finally, I spoke to a second semester about her plans on completing the language requirement, and she told me she was not sure at all what to do. “I’m not even sure what language I want to take. But I will look into it relatively soon with my tutor.” This is exactly what Dr. Luscombe recommends, as she adds a few tips and tricks on how to successfully complete your language requirement. “Plan the language and culture requirement as part of your overall study plan, so start early with that particular graduation requirement. Also, think about how your choice of language and culture courses fit in best with your other academic interests, further study and career plans.”

Eventually, nobody will escape the language requirement, even though some might be more excited about it than others. Our university is working on changing part of the system that will hopefully take away some of the problems which arise often at this point in time. However, having previous experiences with a language are probably not going to make a difference. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to change the structure of the entrance exams due to the CEF regulations. In the end, the most important thing when taking an entrance test is to prepare sufficiently, especially for the grammar, even though it might not seem necessary at first. Students should not try to perceive the language requirement as a chore, but as an opportunity to broaden you research opportunities. Maybe, in the end, you might even be grateful for completing your language track.

Marijn Thijs, class of 2016, is a History and Linguistics major from Maartensdijk, the Netherlands.

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