你好。我是學生。(Nǐ hǎo. Wǒ shì xuéshēng.)

Did you get that? It was a pretty simple declaration: “Hello. I am a student.” It’s one of the few phrases I remember from taking Mandarin Chinese, back in the old days when RPI offered language classes.

I wanted to learn to speak Chinese, but I didn’t get past Chinese I before RPI cut all the available language programs. I’ve been trying to keep up with my language skills on my own, often with the help of the Troy Public Library, but it’s rather difficult outside the structure of a classroom–especially with a complex tonal language such as Chinese. And, quite importantly, learning that I do on my own doesn’t show up on a transcript.

Graduate school admissions officers like to ask me what languages I’ve studied, and they’re often aghast to hear that Rensselaer cut its entire foreign language department. Often, their jaws literally drop. The idea that a university–especially one trying to break away from being seen only as an engineering institute–would slash every language program just astonishes them. They follow that with a lot of questions, and become even more, well, confused when they find out that RPI was, simultaneously, pushing for a mandatory study abroad program.

It’s ironic that, while President Shirley Ann Jackson is trying to move away from RPI’s technology-only focus, the only languages I can take are for computers. To her credit, Jackson speaks quite passionately about long-term strategies for language learning and envisions some cutting-edge possibilities. But the short-term strategy boils down to: “Uh, there are some language courses offered at nearby institutions. Why don’t you take those?”

That’s not really a viable option. To begin with, it seems that area schools may be following our lead–the State University of New York at Albany recently announced its intent to suspend the French, Italian, and Russian programs. Also, it can be surprisingly difficult to work a course at another university into your schedule. If you wanted to take Chinese II at SUNY Albany next semester, you’d need 10:25 am–11: 20 on Mondays and Wednesdays free—and that’s a pretty common class time, so there’s a good chance it’d conflict with a required class. It gets even more difficult with Arabic, which is offered from 4:15–5:10 pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. That means it’s basically out of the question if you have a 2–4 or 4–6 class on any day of the week. And all that’s leaving aside the fact that freshmen and a majority of upperclassmen do not have vehicles, and taking the bus requires a long and variable time investment that makes being punctual difficult and unpredictable. While the off-campus classes may provide an opportunity for a minority of students, they shouldn’t be the only option.

The Institute should pursue more short-term language opportunities—for public relations reasons, for recruitment, to enrich campus culture, and, most importantly, out of a responsibility to students.

In “Facing the Global Economic Crisis: Frequently Asked Questions,” released around the time of the language cuts, RPI assured that “in the short term, we are working individually with the 12 students currently involved in the language minor to ensure proper completion of their degrees.” However, I know someone who filled out all the paperwork to get a Chinese minor, and was very close—and he still hasn’t heard anything from the school about it. He’s a junior. There isn’t a lot of time left for him to complete the minor.

But there were only a few students enrolled in a minor program—far more were considering a minor or just taking a class or two to increase their competitiveness in the job market or for personal reasons. And in an increasingly globalized economy, that’s a very smart thing to do.

It would seem that RPI recongizes that if you read The Rensselaer Plan. It starts out with this ambitious statement: “Rensselaer pursues this goal: To achieve greater prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.” It also devotes an entire section to “National and International Reach,” in which it declares that “[we will] enable our students to increase their knowledge and understanding of international issues and cultures, including participation in international exchange programs.” In what way is the school doing that, besides with this “new portfolio of language study opportunities” we continuously hear about but never see?

So here are some things that RPI can—and should—do to increase language and cultural study opportunities on campus:

1. Open classes like “Italian Culture and Language” (offered Fall 2010) and “Indian Language and Culture” (offered Spring 2011) to the entire campus body, not just architecture students.

2. Purchase language-learning software and CDs, like Rosetta Stone and the Pimsleur language learning system, for Folsom Library.

3. Create a “Language House.”

The last option would be a great tie-in with the much-touted Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students Initiative. And I’d argue that it’s of much greater value to the student body than launching a “Junior Year Experience” (what does that mean, exactly?) or hiring a full-time golf coach (cool, but does it enhance students’ career prospects and our goal of becoming a university with global impact?).

A language house is a living-learning residence, offered at universities ranging from the lesser-known University of Puget Sound to the extremely well-regarded College of William & Mary and Cornell University, that allows students to practice a foreign language and learn about another culture in a casual, comfortable setting. It would be an ideal way to accomplish many things at once: to enhance CLASS, to enrich RPI culture, and to provide a language-learning opportunity without reinstating the language programs.

While most universities’ language houses have faculty that help support the program, such a program would be possible without them. Houses take advantage of student native speakers. For instance, Cornell asks those native speakers to organize weekly programs for the students in its language houses and to dine with residents regularly. The kind of activities they participate in are casual and fun but provide an excellent learning experience. “Students might cook a traditional meal together, go to the theatre, picnic at a state park, play board games, practice calligraphy, take salsa lessons, or compete in intramural sports,” explains Cornell’s website. Additionally, “newspapers, periodicals, books, games, DVDs, and cable TV channels in the target languages are also available on-site,” contributing to the immersive language and cultural environment.

And I’m sure the Institute can find a way to put its unique spin on this, such as incorporating high-tech learning opportunities using the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center or the Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture.

An opportunity like this would also provide a great option for our international students. Right now, many of them cluster together with other students from their home country; for example, I know many Chinese students live together in an apartment complex off-campus. This would allow them to live side-by-side with American students without abandoning the cultural benefits of their individual communities. And while they help RPI students improve their foreign language skills, the international students can improve their English—at last, a solution to the age-old “I don’t understand anything my TA says!” problem.

If the Institute is serious about the goals in The Rensselaer Plan, they need to address the issue of foreign languages. A school with no languages and limited cultural learning opportunities is not going to be “a top-tier world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact,” nor is it going to attract those who dream of changing the world. Changing the English-speaking world, maybe.

這是我最後的編輯,所以再見, RPI. And here’s to hoping future students can read that.



This article appeared as an Editor’s Corner in the November 17, 2010 issue of The Polytechnic(Volume CXXXI, Number 13).