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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 23. September 17, 1968

Language Requirement

Language Requirement

— abroader view

"Students should bear in mind that for serious siudy in any academic discipline a reading knowledge of at least one foreign language is a sine qua non: and that in most graduate programmes, proficiency in foreign languages is not only useful but mandalory. Student are strongly advised, therefore, to continue the study of foreign languages at the university."(1)

My interest in this question should be defined: 1 am taking Italian Reading Knowledge this year in order to satisfy the Arts Degree requirement. I took no language at school beyond Form II.

As to the proposal to abolish the language requirement: this question has come up often while I've been at university. But the debate. such as it was, passed me by until I read Logan's Salient editorial on 16 July. That 1 thought the editorial, regardless of the viewpoint expressed, was vacuous, illconsidered, and thoroughly bad journalism, is immaterial here; save insofar as it was primarily this consideration which led me to reply to Logan's effort in my Salient letter, which appeared a fortnight later.

The purpose of this submission is to try to explain what is involved in a proposal to abolish the language requirements. In the first place, I wish to iterate a point suggested in part in my Salient letter. The fact that the requirement is difficult to satisfy is only a valid argument against its retention if it can be demonstrated:

(i) That an impossibly high standard is set in reading knowledge courses; and/or

(ii) That some students have an 'aptitude' for languages and therefore have an advantage over students without this special facility.

(i) Is the standard impossibly high?

The following are the pass rates for reading knowledge students in the 1967 examinations:

French: 77%passed.

Italian: 89% passed.

Russian:90% passed.

German: 60% passed.

Latin: 77% passed.

Maori: 80% passed.

Greek: No candidates.

While the Committee may feel that the obvious discrepancies between pass rates may need reviewing—a difference of 29% between German and Italian seems odd for example —the over-all standards are clearly not very high: at least in terms of the number of students who pass finals.

(ii) Is there such a thing as an 'aptitude' for languages? I'm not sure one way or another about this—maybe nobody knows. But I think it's very likely that what many of us call 'aptitudes' might better be termed 'predilections', or simply, 'likings'. How many of us have been put off Latin, say, because of the grammar? Or, in the case of any language, because of unimaginative leaching? Inadequate teaching methods might well be the source of the development of the 'aptitudes' and 'ineptitudes' that we hear so much about. I know that a dreary science teacher did much to drive me from pursuing science studies lo an advanced level A great deal of the difficulty students face in tackling the language requirement would probably be solved by improved teaching in schools.

Arts degree

"I believe that there is clear evidence that in the minds of the community and the students the role of the university should be vocational."

A senior Australian Civil Servant. (2)

"The universities do not exist for the purpose of producing cannon-fodder for industry."

The Vice-Chancellor of Monash; in reply to the above. (3)

I am not interested in the language requirement per se. Its intrinsic value is severely limited (by the attitudes of students: as much as by its content or the manner in which it is taught). But the question of the "status in a degree", as the petition which is circulating has it, of the language requirement must inevitably bring up questions of the structure of the degree itself. We have to consider what the B.A. is and what we feel it should be

As I mentioned in the Salient letter, I believe that the B.A. degree should try to reconcile "the opposing forces of generalisation and specialisation"; and that a good Arts degree design would, as far as possible, provide "specialisation within the context of a general education." I suggest that this reconciliation could be brought about in a structure such as this:

First Year: Students would sit six papers set at a level below that of present Stage One units It would be compulsory for students to take two papers from other faculties. Other faculties, in providing for Arts students who are to take papers in one or other of their departments, would present courses in selected subjects of fairly general application. These courses would attempt to demonstrate to students what the particular approach of, say, the biologist is to his field of inquiry and would discuss any broad trends which could be discerned in the discipline involved. In this direction lies Professor Barber's suggestion for a General Physics course (4) for Arts students. This proposal is an enormously appealing one. I hope that it will be adopted, well responded-to by students, and extended into other sciences and. of course, into other faculties.

Second and Third Years: Students would specialise in one or two subjects. Any combination of subjects should clearly have some common denominator. In other words, Psychology and Sociology, and Geography and Asian Studies would be satisfactory subject combinations; but Latin and Economics, or Pure Mathematics and Political Science, would not.

approach only

1 don't doubt that any setious consideration of this suggested degree design would reveal major inadequacies: I am only suggesting the approach which should be adopted. One important immediate benefit which would accrue from a structure such as that suggested above, however, would be an improved stanlecturing. I have sat through Stage One lectures in six Arts subjects (5) and have found them almost invariably to be thoroughly boring. The most important failure in Stage One lecturing, however, lies in the wide neglect of definition of the scope of the subject involved, and of explanation of the subject's essential distinctions (if any) from other subjects, and of description of exactly what academics in the particular field concerned are trying to do. Under the present system, where a minimum number of Stage Two units is required for completion of a degree, and where nine units are required in all. every department can be reasonably confident of attracting sufficient students to ensure lhat the administration doesn't start asking awkard questions. (6) Lecturers may plumb fresh depths of boredom, evoke mountains of intellectual tripe—they're still safe. But what would happen if department had to demonstrate that their subjects were interesting and relevant to the modern world? No one would lake a subject to an advanced level if it had been demonstrably boring and tenuously relevant to the contemporary world when the student had sat his first papers. The results of such a changed situation might be very pleasant for students—and challenging for the academics.

The Students' Association's Education Officer. Caroline McGrath. mentioned to me that the Committee is unanimous on the question of abolishing the language requirement. She also said that it might justifiably be made compulsory for language and literature students. I can see how this might remove some anomalies but I cannot see how the principle of the oft-repeated statement that the requirement is a bad one will have been upheld should this proposal be adopted. If the requirement is bad—it's bad. Abolish it altogether! The fact that Miss McGrath feels that languages have some role in an Arts degree is a good point for discussion. I presume we all accept that a degree must have some compulsory features For example. it should be taken over a certain minimum period and should include courses which are fell to be prerequisites for postgraduate study.

Why did the University make the language requirement mandalory in the first place? I suppose they thought lhat knowledge of another language was intrinsically valuable in some way, that overseas requirements should be borne in mind, and that a certain minimum slandard for the B.A. degree should be set somewhere. Have these hypothetical considerations any relevance at the present time?


(i) Is language study intrinsically valuable? I expressed my attitude to this question in the following words in my letter:

"I think that the language requirement is invaluable in that it offers the student a unique reorientation With the fundamental material with which he deals: his own language."

It is entirely a matter of opinion, of course. as to whether languages are so much more important than other Arts subjects that they can be justifiably singled out for emphasis in the way they have. However, I would like to hear Logan's argument for contending that "a knowledge of simple mathematics, modern history or elementary sociology are probably all more necessary for a "rounded education" than is a language.

(ii) What about overseas requirements? It seems clear that nearly all overseas universities require post-graduate Arts students to have proficiency in a second language. This situation may be iniquitous, undemocratic, or whatever—but it exists, and must be recognised as existing.

(iii) What should the minimum standard for the B.A. be? The language requirement is like a small morsel of meat in a thin slew : it's the only solid thing there Take it away and the B.A. degree will be mean. hyperpalatable gruel. The next step would be reducing the number of units in the degree to, say, five. Make it a two-year course. The B.A. is of so low value now that it would be but a short step to its compleate devaluation. As I outlined in my suggested degree design, I would like to see more compulsory requirements, not less.

page 5

debate's scope

I hope that in the course of this submission I nave persuaded members of the Committee of the necessity of considering the wider implications of a proposal to abolish the reading knowledge requirement. And I would like suggest to the Committee that it should copsider the nature and adequacy of language teaching at all levels. (This bearing in mind my earlier remarks when discussing the matter of 'aptitudes'.) The reading knowledge requirement, as it stands. represents an unsatisfactory situation. I have found it quite as difficult as any Stage One unit which I have undertaken and I feel that it is unfair that I have to take a 9(-unit degree as against the 9-unit degrees of those who are taking Stage One language units. For most of us, that half-unit means hard work with little credit. Couldn't they upgrade a bit and make it the equivalent of a full unit? Maybe it could be made a two-year course.

Whatever the Committee wishes to propose to the Administration as an alternative to the present situation—complete abolition of the requirement, a limited compulsion (e.g. for language and literature students only), or an alternative language course—it will surely have to produce better arguments than those which have been voiced to date:

"Students dislike the foreign language requirements because they see little relevance to some of their degrees: it causes delay in some cases and because of its content (sic) as a compulsory half unit." (7).

The sentence quoted above, if represented as argument, must be accorded the Status of drivel. There appear to be three 'arguments' here- "relevance", "delay" and "X". I've called the last one "X" because, despite some considerable puzzlement. I can't work out whether Miss McGrath meant that students felt they were being diddled through only getting a half-unit for their pains (with which view I sympathised in the second paragraph above), or that students didn't like it because it is compulsory. (Which is a bit like saying you don't like apartheid because it's there — very fine but hardly an argument). However, Miss McGrath did mention the case of a student who spoke a second language — Hebrew. I think it was—and who had to take a reading knowledge as the language concerned was not taught as a reading knowledge language at Victoria. This is a genuinely anomalous case and certainly should have been provided for in the Regulations. Before dealing with the point, however, I would like to suggest that one's argument should never be predicated on the exceptional instance, but should deal with those cases which generally apply, and take its force from them, rather than from the exception to every rule. Just how common is the case which was mentioned? As a genuine anomaly it is capable of other solution than abolition of the requirement. however, It seems clear that there should be incorporated in the Regulations something along the lines of the proviso, taken from the Monash Calendar, quoted below :

Driven Away?

Driven Away?

At the beginning of this year this Reading Knowledge class students had to use the steps for seating. This photo was taken last Friday.

"… a candidate whose native tongue is not English and who satisfies the faculty that his knowledge of English and of his basic tongue is of a good satisfactory, standard, may be exempted from the requirements… " (8)

With suitable amendment, this proviso could quite satisfactorily cover the case concerned. And. finally, "relevance" and "delay". In quoting Dr Mathcson, the ViceChancellor of Monash, earlier. I expect that I made it clear where my sympathies lie. But for all utilitarians and "relevance" people. I'll quote the Vice-Chancellor once again:

"One is not producing a can of beer or whatever it may be; one is producing a human being who moves out into life and begins to develop… and if we have not given him some sort of solid basis from which he can develop into whatever opportunities life should put in front of him. then in the universities we have failed in our purpose. I would say from this point of view it is quite impossible to contemplate trying to match people with jobs; specific training for jobs is just not our business. We are concerned to produce intelligent people who can think, so that when you get them, if you know what you're doing, you can make the best use of them. There is really only a rough relationship between the course that students pursue at universities and the career they subsequently follow." (9)

The delay caused in some cases may derive from a number of causes. Miss McGrath mentioned one in the Salient article:

"Others have failed their third attempt."

I think that the Committee will find that such people are either stupid, or bone idle. And so the argument has come full circle —if people pulled their fingers out and did some work, there'd be a lot less bitching— that was the reactionary argument on which I sailed into this debate. And even it hasn't been answered!

(1) 1968-69 Calendar of the University of British Columbia; sect. F—p. 18.
(2) Sir Alan Westerman, Secretary (i.e. Permanent Head) of the Department of Trade; at the Monash University seminar on "The Relation Between the Universities and Industry" in June this year. See "What is an Arts Degree Worth-", by April Hersey, in The Bulletin, July 13. pp. 33-4. for a partial account of the proceedings.
(3) Dr J. A. L. Matheson is quoted in the Bulletin article mentioned above.
(4) See "Suggestions Wanted", an article by Jane Lewis in Salient. July 30. 1968.
(5) English. Geography. History. Political Science. Psychology and Sociology.
(6) This may no longer be the case with English. Geography. History and Political Science-in fact I'm sure the latter has improved since I took it. But it certainly is true of Sociology, and to a lesser degree of Psychology, that if the degree of interest which lecturers feel impelled to inspire in their students is any guide then Stage One lectures aren't of very great import to the departments concerned.
(7) From an article, entitled "Foreign language petition", in Salient. August 6. 1968. Miss McGrath was quoted in the same article as having said that "Statements supporting the present position will also be considered." Which was jolly, jolly d. of her. don't you think?
(8) 1967 Monash Calendar; p. 202.
(9) See notes (2) and (3) above.