Economics of language fluency

Posted April 11, 2010, at 7:05 p.m.

For those of us who observe the University of Maine from the outside, what goes on inside can often seem mysterious. We support its existence — and not only with our taxes. We know that it is vital to the future of our region and our state — vital economically and vital culturally. We pay tuition to send our children there. We live in the same community. Many of us have friends who work there.

And still, the university often remains a puzzling universe. The most recent puzzle we are trying to understand is how the proposed elimination of language majors would serve a long-term financial purpose. As a businessman, I have struggled to balance budgets more than once, but always with a clear goal within an encompassing plan.

I have also worked internationally, and I know that fluency in a second or third language is an invaluable asset in a global economy in which Maine necessarily lives and competes. I know the value of hiring employees who have this fluency. In the future, Maine will be more prosperous if its residents can work internationally and speak the languages of at least some of the places in which they will work. Why then would we want to deprive Mainers of this opportunity?

In a memo made available to the public by the dean of the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the following rationale is offered to propose the elimination of language majors:

ä The proposal is a response to a projected 20 percent reduction in the college budget by 2014.

ä The university would like to offer regular courses in languages like Chinese and Arabic for which it does not at present offer a menu of regular courses.

ä A commitment to the current language majors (French, Spanish, German and Latin) would require hiring faculty to teach those languages in the future.

ä Such hiring would prevent the hiring of faculty to teach other languages.

ä High quality instruction would still be provided in the languages currently taught but without offering them as majors.

This rationale seems odd. Where is the benefit and where are the savings?

It is hard to see, for example, how eliminating the major in French while continuing to offer courses that will create fluency in French can possibly save any money. It would only save money if the university eliminated a substantial number of courses but that necessarily would preclude fluency. Nor does one see how it would save money if the faculty the university no longer hires in French is replaced by faculty in Arabic.

Why then is this proposal a response to a budget reduction? No savings seem to be involved. The apparent reason seems to be that in order to teach more languages superficially it is necessary to teach fewer languages in depth. This precludes fluency. Is that really in the economic or cultural interests of Maine people? Hard to think so.

I believe that students at the University of Maine should have the opportunity to become fluent in as many languages as possible. The chance to become fluent in Arabic or Chinese would be invaluable. I do not believe, however, that the university should offer a few courses in many languages in order to deny its students fluency in any.

Consider the cases of French and Spanish. French is a heritage language in Maine for a third of its residents. It is a defining cultural reality. French is also the first language of Quebec, not only our neighbor to the north and west, but Maine’s most important trading partner. Prosperity in Maine requires us to be part of a region in which Quebec will always be a major economic and cultural force.

At the same time, Spanish is rapidly becoming the second language for the United States as a whole. And it is the language of our country’s southern neighbors. Ideally, to do business in the Americas, students from the University of Maine should be fluent in French, Spanish and English, just to begin with. And ideally — in order to prosper in the global economy — other languages as well.

I do not see how the proposal to eliminate language majors is in anyone’s interest, and I do not see how the proposal offers significant savings. I have reasons to believe instead that there is room for savings through better coordination between the programs offered by the five colleges and the elimination of duplication throughout the university.

Is it too much to ask that in the near future the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences tries to offer a more compelling vision and more enlightened proposals?

Gerard Tassel is a business consultant and a former trade councilor of the French government. He lives in Bangor.

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