Foreign language program leaves students hanging

By Bethany Reinhart

As a journalist, I have been told that becoming fluent in a foreign language would not only be helpful in the field, but also make me more marketable. When I came to Columbia, I vowed to take electives that would only be relevant and useful in my future journalism career. I vowed not to waste my credit hours on yoga and instead pack my brain with as much helpful knowledge as possible. But looking back, I wish I would have taken yoga-I probably would have learned more.

My encounters with the foreign language program at Columbia have been so frustrating that I have forever sworn off my once-enthusiastic desire to learn another language. The program is poorly run, the department is not doing enough to help students succeed and the classes have been immensely frustrating for beginners who have a desire to learn the


On my first day of Spanish I, I had no previous experience. Foreign languages were not offered at my high school, and I didn’t grow up exposed to Spanish. I was a true beginner. Hence my decision to take Spanish I-a class that based on its online course description, sounded like it was for complete beginners. But instead, I found that many of my classmates had just come from four years of high school Spanish. They weren’t beginners at all. This immediately made the learning environment very difficult. My professor began gearing the class to students who had experience and were not true beginners. This was a huge disservice to students like me, who were not at all familiar with the language but truly wanted to learn.

Worried and slightly obsessed about my grade, I spoke to my professor frequently, begging for extra credit opportunities and other ways to improve my grade. I met with the tutor whenever our schedules allowed, and I purchased every reference book I could possibly think of. My professor saw I was trying hard to learn the language and assured me that would be reflected in my grade. In the end I walked away from the class with an A-, not because I had learned much Spanish, but because I had given it my best shot.

Still convinced that I wanted to learn the language, I later enrolled in Spanish II. That was a colossal mistake on my part. This time I was in for an even ruder awakening. I found myself in a class where not a word of English was accepted and strong previous knowledge was expected. I still can’t conjugate verbs and can barely count to 20. On my first day of class I took the Spanish placement test that is given in all classes. Not surprisingly, I bombed. But when I spoke to my professor, she seemed confident I would be able to quickly catch up. She encouraged me to stay in the class and never once mentioned that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it.

The truth is, I am probably not cut out for it, but that is a pretty crushing thing to say to a student who really wants to learn. Instead of simply writing students off, the foreign language program should attempt to help students who show a consistent and diligent effort.

My professor saw how far behind I was and did little to help. All she could tell me was that the best way for me to learn was to talk as frequently as possible in class. So instead of relying on the program to assist me, I begged a native Spanish speaker who works in the Journalism Department to help me in his spare time. This is an example of failure on every level-including my own. Instead of believing there was a solution that would help me or that I could derive superwoman powers and suddenly master the language, I should have just dropped the class immediately.

If Columbia is going to offer foreign languages, they need to get on the ball and do a better job helping students assess what level is right for them. The school needs to create more sections in the foreign language program. For students like me, who are absolute true beginners, there needs to be introduction level classes. If the department thinks this is not feasible, then the level one language curriculum needs to be changed to suit students who have never had a day of foreign language. It is unfair and inaccurate for the college to assume that students have had previous experience with foreign language. That should be kept in mind when creating the curriculum.

The foreign language program needs to add very specific prerequisites to the classes. Most professors give out an evaluation exam to assess what level students are at. If a student in Spanish II fails a basic evaluation exam, they should not be encouraged to stay in the class in hopes that they might suddenly catch up. That is like allowing a student who cannot do basic multiplication and division to stay in an advanced calculus class.

The program also needs to ensure that promised services actually exist. It is now week eight of the semester and the department has still not hired a Spanish tutor to replace the one who left after the end of last year. That is totally unacceptable.

Lastly, students who clearly qualify for a higher level should not be allowed to stay in an entry level language class. This truly impedes others students’ ability to learn the fundamentals of the language.

My first Spanish professor made it clear that Columbia does not put much of an emphasis on foreign languages. Well, Columbia, either work to change that attitude and focus a little more on this program or get rid of it. It is unfair that students who truly want to learn are falling through the cracks because of an overlooked, poorly managed program. Instead of trying to learn Spanish in college-where I should be able to learn it-I am instead going to spend a fortune on Rosetta Stone and a private tutor, not affiliated with Columbia.