Low enrollment in languages prompts action

Ashton Moss, News Editor

In the last few weeks, there has been a large student reaction to rumored cuts in the language department that would eliminate lower enrollment languages, such as Japanese, Chinese, and Russian.  As of right now, these rumors are false.  “No actions have been taken to eliminate or reconfigure any of these programs,” Provost Jonathan Green said.  While these programs will still be offered at Illinois Wesleyan University, both faculty and students in the language department are currently working to change the structure and goals of the secondary language programs.

The Problem at IWU
The problem is not that Illinois Wesleyan wants to stop offering these languages but that incoming students simply aren’t as interested in taking them as they used to be.  “In recent semesters, there have been sections of languages classes with very low enrollments,” Green said. “Independent of the financial implications, these small classes sometimes create less than ideal learning environments – conversations require company.”

“Chinese enrollment is a good example of lesser interest,” said James Matthews, the chair of the Modern and Classical Languages and Literature department. “We used to have good enrollment, with 12 to 15 students in every class. This year, we’ve had three or four students.”  While this low enrollment is most common in some of the smaller language programs such as Chinese and Russian, even some of the larger programs are starting to be threatened.   Most years, Illinois Wesleyan will have roughly five to 12 incoming students that have AP scores in French. This past year, there was only one.
“For the 26 or 27 years I’ve been here, we’ve been able to assume that students will have an interest in French and German. This is no longer true,” Matthews said.  “In the past, we’ve had to recruit students for languages like Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Now we have to recruit students for German, and I imagine next year we will have to do so for French.”

The decline in students interested in language starts at the high school level.   The No Child Left Behind Act has demanded numbers from standardized tests from school districts all across Illinois, which is where Illinois Wesleyan draws 80 to 85 percent of its students.  Programs like art, music and languages don’t generate the kind of numbers that standardized tests require, so many districts are either downsizing or completely discontinuing their language programs.

“The main source of our student population comes from a place where languages are decreasing in importance and the variety of languages offered is decreasing,” Matthews said. “It is becoming harder and harder to find students who are advanced in language study.  “Language is intimately tied to how we perceive the world. To not see the world through the lens of at least one other culture is a severe limitation.”

Over the past few years, IWU has seen a decrease from 2100 students to 1950.  Of the enrolled students, a vast majority of them are taking the placement test and opting out of the language requirement. The few who do not take the placement test are then spread out across nine languages, spreading the numbers thin.  “I think what we’ve come to realize is that it’s an issue with apathy towards the general education requirements,” said Katie Sill, a Chinese language student. “Language credits have become a thing you just get rid of or something you just have to get done with as opposed to something that opens doors and allows you to pursue passions or careers.”

“It’s disturbing to me that students can pass through IWU without taking a single college level language course,” Matthews said. “It’s frustrating to hear students say, ‘How can I get out of language?’ The irony is that we have an award-winning, nationally recognized language staff, so it’s hard to hear that students don’t want to take these languages.”

“The one thing that is certain is that we cannot keep doing what we’re doing.  The numbers are talking to us,” Matthews said.
The first step is rethinking the structure of the MCLL department and its curriculum.
Matthews said, “We have to think about our curriculum – are we offering the right kind of classes for our students in the 21st century? What can we do to make them better and to better serve our students?  “The other thing I would like to do is get more feedback from students. We have talked to professional associations and consultants and had a review of our department. But I want to talk to people who aren’t enrolling in, say, Chinese and find out what I need to do to offer a better picture of what Chinese can offer them.”

The Asian Studies department has already taken steps towards improving the Chinese program.   At a meeting discussing next year’s plan for the Chinese program, it was suggested that time should be set aside to discuss how to proceed with Chinese language instruction. As of now, Chinese 101 will not be offered for one year in order to allow the department time to restructure the program and get it back on solid footing.

A letter drafted and signed by 20 faculty and staff members was sent to Green, Matthews and director of international studies Marina Balina expressing a desire to support and reiterate the value of these languages with low enrollments.  “The main thrust of the letter was that the Asian Studies faculty members believe strongly that both Chinese and Japanese language instruction should be strengthened at IWU,” said Thomas Lutze, coordinator of the Asian studies department. “We also shared some brainstorming ideas as to how we might help boost enrollments.”

So far, many faculty and students in the language department have come up with multiple suggestions on how to boost enrollment in a language.  Ranging from a World Language Center that would operate as a space to celebrate language learning to explaining to incoming students what pursuing a language could do for them beyond just meeting a general education requirement, the faculty and students have many ideas to increase the interest in and visibility of languages on campus.

“It’s really a visibility issue. Few people know these programs are even offered,” said Chris Tatara, a Russian language student. “Whether it be through the World Language Center or through more language-centered events on campus, there needs to be more promotion of these languages with lower enrollments.”  Additionally, there is talk of partnering programs both between majors and between students.

“I’d like to see us have more partnerships with other departments,” Matthews said. “Hispanic studies has a great partnership with the school of nursing, and the German and business departments have done some exciting things. That’s our future as a language department – we have to become more entrepreneurial in this way.”

“Pairing international students with IWU students dedicated and interested in working on their language skills might be a good route to take,” Sill said. “I know that a few international students have spoken up and are willing to work with American students who are trying to learn these languages.”

The role of secondary languages as general education requirements might also be reassessed.  “Part of the idea behind general education is to approach different problems from different points of view and angles,” Matthews said.  “Secondary languages fulfill this perfectly.”

Green said, “I wish that students who meet the current threshold to ‘test out’ of the second language requirement would be encouraged or required to take at least one language class at the university, either as a continuation of their second language or an exploration of a third.  “This would strengthen enrollments in those courses and enrich the academic experience of many students.”

Due to the commitment and passion of students and faculty at IWU, many ideas have been generated, and people are enthusiastic about the potential new directions the language department may go in.  “On the basis of several brief meetings with the Provost in the past week, it is clear that some new possibilities are in motion, though it is too early to report any concrete results,” Lutze said.

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