May 1, 2011

Een Tijdperk van Onzekerheid: An Era of Uncertainty

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Semester by semester, and class by class, small language programs like Dutch are witnessing a quietly spoken educational massacre — a massacre that has already eliminated Quechua, Hungarian and Modern Greek this past year and has forced students in Turkish to become familiar with the concept of distance-learning. Swedish, another language bound for extinction on the Hill, had been extended until the end of this semester only through the generosity of a private grant.

The massive reduction of Cornell’s language programs is greatly hindering the way this distinguished institution distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack. For a university that prides itself on creating citizens who are ready to tackle the world, we are losing more and more opportunities to fight second-language illiteracy in the United States. We are losing support for languages, cultural communities and interest groups that can be found nowhere else in the Northeast. Our language offerings are becoming closer and closer to the mainstream selections that are offered by public universities. Why did I choose to choke up my parents’ wallets to attend this University when I could study the same things at a school where tuition is half the cost?

Our loss, in fact, has already become another school’s advantageous gain. Cornell’s sole Dutch lecturer, Chrissy Hosea, will be relocating next year to Yale University, where she will be founding a new Dutch program on the New Haven campus. Hosea’s new career at Yale will finally allow her to break from the uncertainties she faced with her career at Cornell.

Aside from the fact that half of Cornell’s population comes from a suburban village, NYC borough or street whose name comes from New York’s Dutch-colonial past, learning a lesser-known language like Dutch both enhances the quality of the individual and is a low-cost way of maintaining our prized 9:1 student-to-teacher ratio. We have already seen on The Huffington Post and YouTube that having a higher student to teacher ratio puts us at greater risk of embarrassment when a viral video surfaces where a professor yells at an anonymous student for yawning in a large, impersonal lecture class.

Let me summarize how my experience with a small language program helped me to advance my future career and made my Cornell education worthwhile. While I have no known Dutch origins in my blood, I am a city planning major and am fascinated by the political cohesiveness of transportation projects in the Netherlands. Out of pure interest, I decided to take Dutch at Cornell so that I could both read documents and interview politicians in the language for a senior honors thesis.

Many people, however, have asked me: Why did I choose to learn an “unimportant” language like Dutch, especially when English is widely spoken in the expat-friendly Netherlands?

Curious questions such as these have given me exactly the attention I need for a solid career in the real world. It got the attention of the U.S. Department of State, for instance, and helped me land an internship for the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam.

Now let’s think about the size of the selection pile for a summer internship with the Department of State. Imagine the applicant pile for all those Americans who had applied to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France because they could speak French, or those who applied for positions in Latin America because they could speak Spanish. Unless I spent half of my life in either of these countries, I don’t think I could have distinguished myself in ways that I have by learning a language that is not widely taught in America.

Such distinguishing moments that have defined my Cornell education will become harder and harder for future students to find. For years, Cornell has safely taken advantage of generous Title VI-mandated grants from the National Resource Center. Prof. Sydney van Morgan, Associate Director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies, mentioned that more than $200,000 had been given away in federal funding to help graduate students study language-related topics over the last four years. Cornell had gotten more money than they had as a result of these language programs, especially since it was determined that only $90,000 was needed to save both Dutch and Swedish last year.

Last Monday, however, The Sun revealed that our institution’s significant reliance on federal funding for small language programs has finally caught up to us. Due to a large reduction in federal funding, 11 additional “critical language” programs are now facing significant risk of closure. Programs such as Indonesian, Thai and Khmer will soon be joining Dutch and Swedish in their nervous wait to see what the future holds.

This is why we have entered a new era of uncertainty. Starting next year, neither the institution nor the federal government can guarantee funding for our small language programs. When these programs are eliminated, we also reduce the possibility of receiving scholarships and grants from organizations that promote “critical language” studies. In other words, we lose a lot more money than the meager savings we temporarily gain.

We have already lost so much, and yet these programs are being let go without further discussion. It is embarrassing for us to promote our world-famous motto of “any person … any study” when we are eliminating numerous small language programs right before our very eyes.

Kevin Chung is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and is taking Dutch as his fifth language. He co-led last year’s “Save Our Swedish and Dutch” campaign and is currently writing a senior honors thesis on Dutch regional transportation policy. He can be reached at kc462@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Kevin Chung