MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Grappling with Change
Overview of the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Introduction to this Special Issue
Will the Task Force HASS Recommendations Increase Student Apathy?
A "Nerd Track" for MIT?
Reasons to Continue to Require 8.02
Diversity in Foundational Skills
and Knowledge
"Big Ideas" and the High School Asymmetry
More Science, Not Less
Recognizing the First Rate
Five-Out-Of-Six Model is Not Viable for MechE, but Five-Out-Of-Five Model Is
The Changing Nature of "Fundamental"
AP Credit for 8.01 is Appropriate
Arguments for Five-Out-Of-Five
The Case for a Shared Freshman
Knowledge Base
Educating Leaders for a Complex World
Toward a Liberal Scientific and
Technological Education
A Serious Equivocation:
The Issue of Foreign Language Study
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
Printable Version

The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)

A Serious Equivocation:
The Issue of Foreign Language Study

Shigeru Miyagawa and Edward Turk*

For its mighty efforts at envisioning an undergraduate curriculum appropriate to the twenty-first century, we thank the Task Force.

It is gratifying to read, with respect to international experience: “A top agenda item . . . is [to provide] a strong signal – from the faculty and the administration – that an international experience is not a luxury. Rather, it is a highly desirable component of an . . . undergraduate experience, regardless of the major” (p. 98). We also applaud the report’s acknowledgment that foreign language study is “a critical starting point for students who wish to engage with foreign cultures” (p. 100).

These views are consonant with our own belief that, in an era of increasing globalization and multilingualism, every MIT graduate should, ideally, be able to speak, read, write, and think well in at least one language other than English.

We are concerned, however, that an implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations would make it very difficult for MIT’s undergraduates to pursue foreign language studies in a proper fashion.

Language learning is a sequential and cumulative process. The best way to study a foreign language and culture is to start early and continue uninterrupted for as long as one can. Yet the report’s proposed HASS requirements would make such study – be it the continuation of work begun in secondary school or the election of a new language – virtually impossible for most of our students.

To require that a minimum of three foundational HASS courses (all assumedly conducted in English) be taken in the first two years would prevent most students from building efficiently upon any secondary-level language study they would bring with them at matriculation. Inevitably excluding freshmen and sophomores from foreign language study, the proposal would also work to the disadvantage of students who hope to acquire proficiency in a language from scratch at MIT: at best, such students might manage to complete four consecutive semesters by their senior year.

These interruptions or postponements would, moreover, deprive most of our students of the opportunity to minor in a foreign language and culture, since minors require six subjects. They would also prove detrimental for students who wish to work and study abroad through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). Like most study-abroad programs, MISTI has a two-year (four-semester) college-level foreign language requirement for many of its tracks. If the proposed HASS GIRs were to go into effect, numerous students would no longer be able to attain such competence before their senior year, and would thus be disqualified from MISTI undergraduate internships and from other undergraduate programs that offer meaningful engagement with non-English-speaking cultures.

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In academic year 2005-2006, a total of 1,254 MIT undergraduates enrolled in foreign language subjects (Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.) Forty-four percent were freshmen and sophomores; fifty-six percent were juniors and seniors. Of the latter, more than two thirds were in intermediate- or advanced-level subjects that require from two to four college-level semesters, or their equivalent, of prior instruction. An implementation of the proposed HASS GIRs would drastically reduce our students’ opportunity for such intermediate and advanced work at every stage of their undergraduate careers.

We thus discern a serious equivocation in the Task Force’s recommendations. On the one hand, the report makes an eloquent, laudable case for internationalizing students’ educational experiences. On the other hand, the report renders it nearly impossible for students to enroll in a sequence of classes that can impart the linguistic and cultural proficiency required for mind-enhancing work and study in regions of the world other than those that are English-speaking.

A monolingual education is an incomplete education.

With Ivy League institutions launching bold initiatives to strengthen their undergraduate engineering programs, it will be all the more crucial in the years ahead for MIT to sustain an environment that can attract students who might otherwise matriculate elsewhere.

Pedagogic wisdom and institutional strategy dictate that we not deny MIT undergraduates – the potential future leaders of science, engineering, business, and other realms – an equal opportunity to prepare for the challenges of a multilingual, transnational world.

The Task Force asserts that much of its work was triggered by a perceived need to ensure that “the study of culture and society” be “sufficiently valued” at MIT (p. 1). With this in mind, we urge fellow faculty to address the issue of foreign language instruction before endorsing any changes to the HASS GIRs.

At stake is nothing less than a clear and honest affirmation, to ourselves and to the rest of the world, of the Institute’s educational priorities.

*The tenured faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures: Isabelle de Courtivron, Elizabeth Garrels, Shigeru Miyagawa, Margery Resnick, Emma Teng, Edward Turk, William Uricchio, Jing Wang.

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