Opinion: Perhaps the most important skill Loyola can provide has little institutional support

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Illustration by Mckenna Greenleaf Faulk

Grant Dufrene

Graduation is coming up and I have been doing some reflecting on my time at Loyola. There is much I am grateful for in my Loyola education, some of the most important being close mentorship, nuanced thinking and foreign languages. As I’ve reflected, this last item spurred a question.

I took Spanish my freshman year after taking it throughout junior high and high school. In my junior year, I began studying German. It seemed like a logical choice: so many important texts of philosophy (my major) are written in German, and I have family who speak the language.

Though I have not gained fluency in either language, I do have proficiency in Spanish and I have mastered the basics when it comes to German. And these are concrete skills I will take with me into the “real world” post-graduation.

Language acquisition is difficult and time consuming, but it is a valuable and marketable skill. The very act of persevering, despite a task being rigorous, is a good practice. There are also cognitive benefits such as memory improvement, longer attention span and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline, according to “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual” by Viorica Marian, and Anthony Shook.

Our website claims, “A Loyola degree will give you an edge when you begin your career.” I cannot think of any more of an edge an applicant could have over another, than being multilingual.

If languages are so valuable—such obvious, concrete skills for college graduates—why did Loyola remove languages from the core?

According to the languages department chair, Nathan Henne, the languages department had 11 tenure-track professor positions in 2014. By the end of this semester, only three of these positions will remain.

In a 2015 article “America’s Lacking Language Skills,” The Atlantic reported that “Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom.” With the dwindling support and encouragement for language study, it seems like these dismal statistics will remain the norm.

Our website boasts a 12-1 student to faculty ratio (previously 11-1), but the maximum class enrollment sizes have crept up over the years, and the number of part-time adjunct faculty replacing permanent tenure track positions grew. These patterns have been experienced across departments at our university, but the languages have felt these pressures to an extreme degree.

This puts the future of certain majors in trouble. Take classics, for example. It was its own major at one point but has now been merged with the languages department.

Some of the languages within the department are also at risk. This academic year, German, a language that only has one instructor (who is part time, might I add), was moved entirely online. What can one really be expected to learn by taking only two semesters of a foreign language—especially if that class is offered online? From a purely practical standpoint, this seems like a poor business choice. Why even try to compete with online language learning software like Rosetta Stone and the like? The one thing that Loyola can offer to students that Duolingo cannot is the experience of being in a learning classroom. Language learning is complex, relies on live (often awkward) social interactions, and benefits from having a real time expert who understands the language and cultural context.

In the three and a half years that I have been at Loyola, I have seen it go through a lot of changes: faculty buyouts, being put on probation, a new president, administrative changes, enrollment growth, being taken off probation, and general uncertainty. Amidst all these changes, and underscoring the uncertainty, Loyola seems to have an identity crisis. Are we really educating students for the wide world beyond Loyola, or merely trying to get students to graduation as efficiently as possible? A symptom of this nagging question is most evident in Loyola’s treatment of foreign languages.

Editor’s Note: The author mistakenly cited Nathan Henne as saying there were 11 full-time professor positions in the languages department  in 2014 in the print edition of this opinion piece. This has been corrected online to reflect there were 11 tenure-track professor positions.