G-PAC, Language Learning, and English

Today’s Hatchet featured a front-page article about the new general curriculum passed recently by faculty in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. As many of you know, the G-PAC curriculum (the “PAC” is for “perspective,” “analysis,” and “communication”), which affects students entering GW in the fall of 2011, does away with the current General Curriculum Requirements regarding foreign language and culture. Right now, students are required to take six to eight hours of foreign language or culture courses. The new G-PAC will not allow lower-level language courses to count toward CCAS graduation requirements, although upper-level language courses, including literature courses taught in languages other than English, will count toward the G-PAC.

Where does the English Department stand on all of this? Most of our faculty were supportive of the new G-PAC, and grateful to our colleague Prof. Jonathan Hsy, a scholar of multilingualism in medieval London (ask him to wow you with his command of Old English and Old French ), for putting in time on the G-PAC committee.

That said, we are also invested in language learning. In fact, English has long had a language requirement that exceeds, in rigor, the language requirement of the College. To be an English major, you need “second-year proficiency in a single foreign language, as demonstrated by completion of our semesters of college-level language study or the equivalent. (In the case of Latin, Latin 3 is sufficient.)”

The current GCR may encourage students to take a foreign language, but from our department’s point of view, two semesters of study of a language is not sufficient. That’s why we require four semesters or their equivalent. Moreover, under the current GCR, students may opt out of language-learning by taking “culture” courses–a vague category that, to our minds, doesn’t always serve students well. To be an English major, students must show proficiency in language.

In English, we think that learning a second–or third or fourth–language is vital, and not just because of the current faddishness of labeling all things “global.” Language learning is not merely about learning about the “foreign” (one reason I don’t love the phrase “foreign language”); it’s also about learning about our selves and our “native” languages and cultures. And while it’s a pleasure to read literary works in translation, we value the level of skill that allows someone to work through a Goethe poem in the original German. “American” literature has always been a multilingual literature, as I tell students in ENGL 41: Literature of the Americas. It includes works written in Spanish, Yiddish, Polish, Navajo, and various Creole languages. Some of our greatest writers have also been translators: take, for example, Langston Hughes, who had a rich relationship with his Cuban peer Nicolás Guillén. So learning languages other than English is also a way into our national past and national imaginary. (Our own Prof. H.G. Carrillo writes about some of these issues beautifully in his novel Loosing My Espanish.)

The new G-PAC can signal the values of the College at the present moment, but requirements rarely, if ever, tell the whole story. Case in point: although we do have requirements to ensure that English majors become familiar with literature from different historical eras, English does not require a Shakespeare course, and probably never has. Does this mean that our students don’t know Shakespeare, or that we don’t value Shakespeare as a canonical figure? Not at all. If you’re a sophomore or a junior, you know how hard it is to get into ENGL 127 or 128, the two Shakespeare courses which are among our most popular offerings.

So we’ll continue to require four semesters of a language other than English, even while conceding that four semesters only scratches the surface. For most of us, second (or third or fourth) language learning is a lifelong process, undertaken over a period of decades, not just years, ever energizing, and ever a worthy and important challenge.

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