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Language departments on campus deserve reinvestment

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APRIL 25, 2017

There are two parts of the brain, so science says, responsible for language: Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas. Nested in the left side of the brain, one is charged with understanding language, the other with producing it. If both areas are damaged, a person is cut off; unable to read, write, talk or listen, deprived forever of a unique and integral part of being human.

Lucky for us, we have no shortage of prospects to tickle dear Wernicke and Broca. At last count, more than 65 languages were taught at UC Berkeley. Many of these are not available at high schools or community colleges, and they range from Sanskrit to Sumerian, Punjabi to Mandarin.

But this opportunity is under threat. Because of scheduled budget cuts, low pay for professors and administrative costs shifting onto departments, UC Berkeley’s language lecturers published a petition on Change.Org on April 10 demanding that incoming Chancellor Carol Christ and UC President Janet Napolitano reinvest in Berkeley’s language departments. The petition has gathered more than 1,400 signatures in 10 days, and lecturers are planning to present the petition to Carol Christ (and Janet Napolitano) by the end of next week.

Unfortunately, this petition will only stave off the inevitable if the undervaluing of our language departments persists. Since the release of the petition, controversy has been raised about the significance of teaching language skills at universities at all. Michael O’Hare, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, wrote in a blog post that “academic credit should not be given for language courses. … Speaking a language is not an intellectual skill comparable to what one learns in courses like Victorian British Literature, Physics of the Solid State, (or) Complex Function Theory.” What’s more, criticism has been raised about the use of graduate students to teach introductory language courses (disregarding the fact that most introductory language courses are taught by professional language lecturers), which, some propose, could easily be replaced with online language-learning programs such as Rosetta Stone.

We undervalue our educators when we suggest their work — interpersonal and thoughtful — is a stand-in for basic technology. Language lecturers are not vocabulary banks with doctorates; they are professional educators investing in the linguistic and cultural education of their students with something more than good grammar in mind. Language skills are a box of tools; with them, you can order lunch, get on a bus, get home from the bar and the like. But they are more than a grammatical puzzle or an English-speaker’s ticket to a foreign vacation. They are more.

My very first class at UC Berkeley was a 9 a.m. session of Spanish 4. After years of easy courses taught by study abroad returnees from my Washington hometown, my Colombian professor took me on a whirlwind of imperfect subjunctive conjugations and a contemporary political history of South America. I learned to talk about a colorful history of coups, to read essays by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his native tongue, to gain confidence with the shapes of the words on mine. I was hooked.

But this is business as well as pleasure. Those Spanish classes helped me live abroad in Costa Rica for six weeks with people who spoke no English. They allow me to conduct interviews at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant with people who come seeking asylum from Honduras and El Salvador. I mean, they did not only give me the words; they gave me an idea of what to say. They gave me a framework for thinking about the lens that is a language and its influence on a multiplicity of worldviews — a kind of linguistic relativism.

Language is a worldview; it is a carrying cloth. It is imbued with all the cultural connotation, the minutiae of meaning, absorbed from the place it echoes through. The Modern Language Association’s committee on foreign languages stated in its 2007 report that the language major should seek to produce “educated speakers who have deep translingual and transcultural competence. … (Students) are also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture.”

Language is interpersonal; we use it to speak to each other. It is also a profound marker of identity and of signaling to others where we come from. Our language lecturers know this; they are after something higher than the words to order dinner. “In the course of acquiring functional language abilities, students are taught critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception,” wrote Claire Kramsch, professor at the Graduate School of Education and professor of German, in an email. Linguistics uses two terms: syntax and semantics. One is structure, the other is meaning. Only in integration is language produced.

Some languages are dead to us; having lost the ability to transmute, take on new meaning and even be pronounced, they have been lost. They remind us: languages are living. They are not contained in dictionaries. They are dripping with slang, oozing with mispronunciations that become dialectic specialties, birthing new terms and regionalisms, all the time, transforming and being transformed by the tongue-brain connections that utter them. To learn them is to come closer to learning the people who speak them.

And at UC Berkeley, lucky for us, our teachers are the best. “I cannot speak highly enough of my experience in (the language) departments, and the quality of the education I got from them,” wrote Francesca Honey, a 2016 graduate who studied comparative literature. “Some of my favorite classes at (UC Berkeley), and my best discussions, were had in foreign languages.” Richard Kern, a professor of French and the director of the Berkeley Language Center, wrote in an email, “We are graced with some of the best language teachers there are, and they have inspired generations of students not only to develop communicative competence, but to plumb the depths of those languages and cultures and to be transformed in the process.”

In Joel Wallman’s 1992 book “Aping Language,” he writes that language is an “endowment of the species” — an integral part of being human, which not even our closest evolutionary relatives can replicate. In a world where uncertainty and intolerance reign, it is a way we hold on to each other. We have both the obligation and the opportunity to engage, now more than ever, with the people in our world; to expand not only the circle of places we can take buses in, but the circle of people who we can understand.

This is not the time to close our ears. Amelia Barili, lecturer in the Spanish department, wrote, “Do not disinvest now in diversity — by shrinking the language departments when the nation and the world most need to foster understanding and integration among our communities from many different world cultures.”

Our language departments deserve our support; both moral and financial. Let’s share the wealth. Literally.

Nina Djukic is a campus student studying conservation and resource studies. She was formerly an opinion columnist and Weekender contributor at The Daily Californian.

Contact Nina Djukic at 


APRIL 25, 2017