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Benefits of bilingualism

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Last weekend, I volunteered to cook for the Chinese New Year party hosted by the Chinese Department. As I was frying spring rolls — authentic Chinese food — to be served at the party, I had the opportunity to meet with fellow Chinese learners as well as the professors who teach at Swarthmore. Each of us had a unique background and unique characteristics; however, there existed one common thread between us: our aspiration to explore Chinese language and culture. The event featured attendees performing to Chinese songs, such as as “Drum-dance of Fong Yang” and “Gong Xi Gong Xi,” which is translated to “Wishing You Prosperity and Happiness.” Not only did this event provide me with a memorable experience, it also convinced me that every Swarthmore student should try learning new languages during their years at Swarthmore.

To begin with, language is the key to understanding culture, because the language one speaks influences one’s behaviors, ideas, and actions. Because Thai is my native language, I experienced a culture shock during my transition from learning in Thai to learning in English here in the United States. In Thailand, when two people meet, they greet each other with “sawasdee,” add “ka/krub” to make the speech more polite, and address each other by seniority. Because Thai culture treasures family-style relationship, one uses pronouns similar to those used in addressing family members to show respect for the other speaker’s seniority. Raised in such culture, I was therefore surprised to learn many Swarthmore professors said they do not mind if students drop the “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Professor” and call them by their first name. None of my Thai teachers has ever allowed me to drop these formalities. Minor as it sounds, such pronoun difference reveals that American culture is more individualistic than Thai culture: whereas addressing a professor by her name suffices in the former, it does not in the latter.

Spoken language aside, the written forms of both languages differ as well: whereas most English words contain different nuances even for synonyms (e.g. happy, joyous, cheerful), many synonyms in Thai have the exact same meaning. Not realizing such difference when I first learnt to write in English, I usually used English synonyms interchangeably, obscuring what I intended to convey as a result. For instance, I used to write “I am joyful to see you” when my true message was “I am glad to see you.” In some cases, I did not use them correctly because I did not understand the culture behind the language. My WA once suggested I fixed my habit of overusing the word “could” to mean “can” to make my writing more affirmative. As I became more proficient in English, I could understand the mistakes I made and Western culture better. Because each word choice has its distinct nuance, writers are expected to choose their words wisely and express their ideas as simply and clearly as possible. Do not circumlocute. Use precise words. Get to the point. Perhaps this quality of English explains why I find Americans tend to be more straightforward than people in my country.

Although some languages, such as English and Spanish, are spoken in many countries, the usage of those languages varies. For example, although England and the United States use English as their official languages, both countries express similar ideas differently and thus have a different culture. Indeed, no language encompasses every aspect of a culture. However, as the earlier paragraphs suggested, even such rudimentary aspects of language as pronoun difference and nuances in synonyms can enrich how one understands a culture.

Another reason to study foreign language is that language fosters empathy and camaraderie between different groups of people. As language reflects culture, it allows a person to express their identity and humanize themselves to other people’s eyes. When two strangers who speak the same language meet, not only do they understand the culture which influences the other, they empathize with each other more than they would have if both barely understood each other. This empathy is especially important today when many countries are starting to raise the barrier between “us” and “them.”

Hari Srinivasulu ’21, a trilingual in English, Hindi, and Tamil —  the language spoken in Southern India — said “I rarely speak Tamil [at Swarthmore] as there are very few Swatties from South India. However, the rare conversations I do have with people who speak Tamil end up making my day, even my week.”

He argued that any opportunities to speak Tamil helps him remain in touch with his identity while he was away from home. It is comforting to know there are people out there who can understand us and empathize with us. Because each foreign language encapsulates a unique cultural aspect, knowing more languages helps us better express ourselves and bond with others more meaningfully.

Moreover, with language, in order for one to understand cultural nuances, that person needs to practice and make mistakes. Language is a great venue for such practice. Recall when you first studied algebra. Your professor explained many basic rules to you, such as that it is not possible to divide both sides of the equation by zero. But unless you revisit such mistakes, it is rather impossible for you to memorize those rules. Because language classes at Swarthmore meet frequently and have many sections, professors can correct each student’s grammatical mistakes and pronunciation. Personally, I attribute my improvement in Chinese to my interaction with professors.

Indeed, the common argument against studying any foreign language is that there is no point to more foreign languages if you already can speak more common languages such as Chinese, English, or Spanish. The reasoning follows: as more people are learning these languages, you need not bother because if the main purpose is to communicate, more common languages will suffice. This argument is true to some extent. If a person who lives in the U.S. speaks English, that person will survive because English is the official language. However, the problem occurs when you want to express some ideas that cannot be represented in the common language. Take Thai greetings for instance. There is no equivalent translation of “sawasdee” in Thai to English. “Hello” and “hi” overlook how Thai people respect the elderly. The word “sawasdee”— which literally means “be safe” — also expresses the goodwill the speaker expresses to the listener. After all, not all aspects of the language can be translated into another language. Some aspect of language is inevitably lost in translation. Certain culturally unique expressions can be expressed only by people who know that language. Culture matters.

The second argument is that it is difficult to learn new languages, especially if you attend a rigorous institution like Swarthmore. By studying a new language, one has to devote lots of time and effort into learning that language, which means there are fewer chances of studying other subjects. This is true, but the flip side of this argument is also true — choosing to take any class always entails foregoing another class. At this point, I am still not certain if I will ever speak Chinese as fluently as a native speaker would, but the enrichment from learning Chinese outweighs the cost. Now, I can hold a simple conversation in Chinese and understand why Chinese people bless one another to be wealthy and prosperous. I would not have obtained such cultural understanding had I decided not to enroll for the class.

All in all, there are many benefits to studying new languages that one should consider. College, after all, is where one becomes exposed to new cultures, ideas, and perspectives. Learning new language helps you achieve that goal.

Despite strain, writing course requirement to remain unchanged for the near future

in Around Campus/News by

As the class of 2019 completes the sophomore planning process, and students look ahead toward deciding their future courses, disparities in writing-intensive course offerings between departments has initiated few discussions of changes to the program by the Office of the Provost.

One of multiple requirements students have to complete before graduation, the writing course requirement prescribes students to complete three designated W courses. Those courses must also be completed in at least two divisions. Courses are determined to be writing courses after a professor applies through the college’s Curriculum Committee. Professors describe their course to the committee, submit the syllabus, and the committee determines if some modifications are needed before the registrar can mark the course as a W course. The Curriculum Committee consists of the four division chairs, the registrar, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, the Associate Provost for Educational Programs, three students, and the Provost.

Provost Tom Stephenson further elaborated on the Curriculum Committee’s process for determining writing courses.

“It’s not really a vote. We just talk about it and try to reach consensus. If there are serious objections raised, then those get fed back to the faculty member,” he said.

Courses that involve a lot of writing are not necessarily designated as official writing courses. That designation depends on a professor’s decision to apply through the Curriculum Committee. Furthermore, while writing courses do not necessarily have to include involvement of the college’s Writing Center and its Writing Associates, many do. Associate Professor of English literature and Director of the Writing Associate Program Jill Gladstein further explained the Writing Center’s role in helping professors provide writing courses to students.

“I am not directly responsible for the W courses. If a W course requests to have a WA, I will assign somebody, but as far as overseeing the implementation of W courses, that takes place more through the Curriculum Committee,” she said. “When the original proposal was written up for W courses, in there, I believe it said that writing courses would have priority over having WAs assigned. But, you didn’t have to.”

In regard to the demand for WAs over the years, Gladstein explained that there hasn’t been a decline.

“There are some classes like BIO 001 and BIO 002 that use WAs all the time. That predates me,” she said.

Gladstein also mentioned other large classes like PSYCH 025 and EDUC 014 that utilize multiple WAs.

“There are certain departments and courses that have utilized WAs since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for around 15 years. And then there’s always a rotating faculty. Some new faculty come in and learn about the program and they decide to utilize WAs with their courses,” continued Gladstein.

While writing courses have been offered in every department at least once in the past, there are disparities in the distribution of writing courses across academic departments, especially in regard to departments that have undergone significant enrollment pressures in the past few years.

Since the fall of 2011, there has been one writing course offered in the economics department and 28 in the political science department. Compared to other departments that have experienced less enrollment pressure like the history department, there has been a more significant amount of writing courses offered. Over the same time period, 61 writing courses and sections of courses were offered in the history department. Some honors theses sections were marked W while others were not.

Stephenson offered an explanation for why this disparity exists.

“Part of the requirement for writing courses is there needs to be active mentoring of students in writing. Over the course there’s supposed to be a process of revision that may or may not involve WAs. And so, there’s a perception that it involves significant work and time investment by the faculty member. As a result, it is allowed but not required that faculty can cap enrollment of writing courses at 15,” he said.

Stephenson went on to say that departments that are under enrollment pressures like political science and economics don’t offer first year seminars or writing courses, leaving writing courses to be offered by smaller departments.

Professor of religion Steven Hopkins explained his reasoning for having his Patterns of East Asian Religions class be a writing course, despite the class exceeding more than 30 students.

“It is something that I’ve done since the beginning when I inherited this class. We’ve always done it in the department. Our intro courses have often been linked to writing courses, because writing is important to our department, particularly drafts and re-writes. And so, for the past years, I’ve kept it that way because I value the process,” he said. “It is difficult to deploy WAs. It takes time and energy from the professor. You have to have patience to deal with students that are scheduled and getting schedules on time. Logistically, I think maybe a lot of my peers think it’s a bit unwieldy if you have a large class, to manage WAs along with everything else.”

Professor of economics Mark Kuperberg also provided a similar explanation for why there is a significant lack of writing courses in some departments.

“Writing courses are a supply and demand thing. From the supply side, there’s this whole issue of freeing up professors and what other professors will have to teach in terms of total amount of students. On the demand side is whether a professor even wants to teach a writing course,” he said.

Kuperberg also predicted that this lack of writing courses would not change in the future. According to him, the college’s plans to increase the student body, increase the amount of faculty, and decrease the amount of courses professors must teach from five to four per year give a net effect of increasing the amount of students professors must teach in the department. This would further decrease the possibility of the economics department offering more writing courses in the future.

However, Kuperberg did not necessarily see a lower amount of writing courses in high enrollment departments as a bad thing.

“The writing course is also a clever way of incentivizing students to take courses in under enrolled departments. The highly enrolled departments are going to be less willing to offer writing courses, the lower enrolled departments are more willing to offer writing courses. Writing is something dependent on the subject. But, good writing is good writing, I believe. Wherever you take a writing course, it should improve your writing. It does have the side effect of pushing students into less enrolled departments. That’s not a bad thing necessarily,” he said.

Hopkins also agreed that the writing course requirement has been useful in exposing more students to the department.

However, some students like Sam Wallach Hanson ’18 wished that writing courses would have been useful in the economics department.

“I would have loved to learn more about writing for economics before jumping into some of the higher level courses. I’m also now about to enter my senior year with only two of my three writing requirements completed, as neither my major nor my minor offers any writing courses. I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve taken in other departments, but I wish I could have taken W courses that were a bit more applicable to my areas of study,” said Hanson.

Ava Shafiei ’19, a WA, also shared her critique of the current writing course requirement.

“It’s not necessarily the amount of W courses that’s a problem. I think it’s that they’re distributed unevenly across departments, and that different professors and different departments treat WA courses with different levels of not only rigor but different pedagogical styles, and I think that makes a difficult for students to really gain the writing skills they need for want at college,” she said.

For other students, like Mohammad Boozarjohmehri ’19,  fulfilling the writing course requirement did not provide any difficulty.

“I met all my requirements, and I didn’t even know I met them all,” he quipped.

Despite the disparity in the amount of writing courses between departments, Stephenson signaled that there would not be concrete changes to the writing course requirement in the near future. He did mention, however, that the college’s Council on Educational Policy has been in the process of re-thinking graduation requirements.

“CEP, responsible for more broad-range curricular planning, is looking more generally at graduation requirements as a whole. And the writing course requirement is a big graduation requirement topic. One of the issues on our agenda is to think more holistically about graduation requirements. That work has been underway for a while, and we haven’t reached any conclusions. We’ve collected some data about the writing requirement, but haven’t really had the opportunity to digest it,” said Stephenson.

That data concerns polling departments about what sort of writing they do in their curriculum that is designated in writing courses versus non writing courses. According to Stephenson, one of the main criticisms of the writing course requirement learned so far is that there are very writing intensive courses that do not carry the W designation.

If the CEP does come up with a policy proposal to change the writing course requirement, the proposal would be voted on by faculty and need to be passed by a simple majority after public discussions. Also, the new policy change would only affect future students, and not ones currently enrolled. However, Stephenson noted that he does not see a policy change happening for a long time.  

News editor Ryan Stanton also contributed to this article.

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