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A Portuguese language class takes place in Williams Hall on January 25. Credit: Oscar Vasquez

With the coming of spring, class registration is coming also. Students stare puzzledly at the “Submit Registration” button on Path@Penn, wondering why there’s no confirmation that it was successful. Later, Penn Course Alerts ding as students frantically try to free themselves from waitlists. But still, in the depths of Path@Penn sit the most unusual language classes Penn can offer, with only a few students apiece.

These less commonly taught languages — a term with many definitions, but by which I roughly mean the languages offered through the Penn Language Center rather than through departments — are the unpublicized relatives of the languages that students flock to, like French, Spanish, and Japanese. They don’t get whopping enrollment numbers or churn out dozens of majors and minors, but they offer unique opportunities to the students who choose to seek them out.

Still, it’s hard to fault students for gravitating to languages with their own departments. While almost all languages offer the four classes needed to fulfill the College’s language requirement, many students want the benefits of a language minor, major, or certificate, which often are only offered through departments. Currently, less commonly taught language programs at Penn are failing to meet those needs. Penn would better prepare students for global careers if the university expanded its minor and certificate opportunities to include these languages.

Right now, the status of language majors and minors at Penn is dependent on the decisions that a department makes about how many language classes are necessary. Of course, there are majors and minors for students studying common languages like German and Chinese. There are minors that require language classes for American Sign Language, the languages of East and Central Europe, and many Middle Eastern languages, as well as the ability to count some language classes for minors in South Asia Studies. Yet this leaves out Penn students who want to study languages from Amharic to Zulu

There are also language certificates, a mysterious creation that isn’t quite a minor, but bears a vague resemblance to one. For these, students need to pass three classes past the foreign language requirement that are taught in the language. In practice, it can be hard for students to achieve this in less commonly taught languages because there are not enough courses offered in those, according to Christina Frei, the executive director of language instruction for the College of Arts and Sciences.

The lack of minors and certificates for less commonly taught languages creates a scenario where students have to make an unnecessary choice between taking a language that they are passionate about and one that they can have a credential in. Not all students plan their language classes to that extent, but some do. For one, my advisor’s description of how Penn wouldn’t cut a language program that students were currently in reassured my desire to enroll in Indonesian. 

Sophomore neurobiology major Katie Rozsypalek, who is also a Chinese language minor, tried to complete the certificate in Czech, but was not able to, because Penn did not offer classes that were suitable for her level of fluency as a Czech heritage speaker.

“[Certificate programs are] a good thing for languages like Czech that don’t have as many students participating in the program, but are still really passionate about learning the language,” Rozsypalek said. “[But] I think it’s a lot harder for those students just because there aren’t enough resources for those students to take classes.”

When students choose to take a more common language, or even no language at all, instead of a less commonly taught language, they lose out on more than just a class in their schedule. There are ample opportunities to learn, say, French outside of Penn, but where else will somebody get a chance to learn Mongolian? This was essentially my motivation for taking Indonesian (plus it’s spoken by about 200 million people, not that many of whom speak fluent English).

Many students, like Rozsypalek, are trying to learn a language because of their family connection to it, which can’t be replaced by, say, a Spanish class. However, that’s not true of all students. Caroline Sende, a first year majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics, chose to take ASL instead of French, a language spoken at home, because she could simply learn French at home if she wanted to. ASL instead offered her the opportunity to learn more about Deaf culture and was less common, which she considers positive.

On the other hand, if students choose a language without a minor or a certificate option, that doesn’t incentivize them to achieve fluency. Although what exact level students will reach differs based on the language and the specific program, Frei characterizes students with the certificate as “usually quite competent.” Chardonnay Needler, a senior philosophy, politics, and economics major with certificates in Chinese and French, also says that, in her experience, both are “extra credentials that can give you a boost.”

It’s true that there’s more to solving this problem than adding minors and certificates. Students have lots of reasons to avoid doing more than the bare minimum of language learning, such as disappointing past experiences with languages. But language minors and certificates are an area where Penn can strongly influence student behavior. For example, Malagasy instructor Travis Aldous credits that program’s success to being offered at a convenient time for student-athletes. That’s a good way to target a niche, but not every language program can do that.

Penn can solve this dilemma in two ways: the easy way or the hard way. There’s a strong case to be made for a standardization of language benchmarks to focus more on whether a student has achieved fluency in a language rather than how many classes they have taken. However, that would take huge amounts of time, effort, and interdepartmental cooperation. A simpler solution would be to expand at least one of the language minor and certificate programs to cover Penn’s rarer languages.

The certificate already theoretically covers any language, but in practice, there are limits. For example, I know of no good reason why study abroad classes should be specially approved by the department in order to count for the certificate, rather than counting automatically. Furthermore, for all the information I was given about other major and minor programs at Penn, I had only the vaguest idea of what a language certificate was before I wrote this column. Penn would benefit from adding more information about language certificates to the first-year required Canvas modules for the College and improving the website to better explain what certificates say to employers and what the benefits of them can be.

Another program that would benefit students at Penn is a minor in specific language and culture, in order to cover the African, American, and Southeast and Central Asian languages that currently have no associated minor. These are some rough guesses, but classes up to the foreign language requirement plus two or three classes using the language in some way and two or three focused on the region where the language is spoken would be equivalent to the minors of many departments.

A good step to make both minors like that and certificates more achievable would be for Penn to invest more in classes where students who are learning different languages improve their linguistic abilities together. Understandably, offering advanced classes in rarer languages is a challenge, as Frei points out, but some kind of offering is better than nothing. The Intensive Summer Multilanguage Seminar at the University of Wisconsin demonstrates that offering independent study classes in less commonly taught languages is possible. There are also already some classes in the Comparative Literature and Literature Theory program that come close to this idea in terms of teaching translation.

For me, learning Indonesian has been one of the highlights of my experiences at Penn thus far. I could take these classes because I wasn’t particularly concerned about having a minor or certificate to show for it, but these are important goals for other students. Expanding Penn’s minor and certificate programs to better include less commonly taught languages is a tangible step towards helping students take advantage of the rich suite of languages available here.

BENJAMIN McAVOY-BICKFORD is a College first year from Chapel Hill, NC. His e-mail is