Investment in Diversity: Preserving Language Programs at UC Berkeley

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Michael Nolan/Courtesy

Walking through Level B of Dwinelle Hall, I listen to the agglomeration of sounds emanating from each room, phrases and exclamations in diverse dialects resonating throughout the hallway. I recognize conversations exchanged in Japanese, German and Chinese, although there are still other languages I cannot identify. I make my way towards the sound of rolled R’s and round vowels, eventually taking a seat in my class and finding myself quickly immersed in the Spanish language.

Like many other UC Berkeley students, this routine has formed an integral part of my college experience. Unfortunately, funding for the language departments at UC Berkeley has been significantly reduced and the program continues to face severe cuts to its budget. As a result, the number of classes next year are supposed to be heavily reduced, according to Spanish lecturer Amelia Barili. A petition was recently circulated to restore funding for these language programs and has received over 1,500 signatures as of press time from impassioned students and faculty members.

Language courses, especially those taught at UC Berkeley, provide far more than rudimentary knowledge of words and grammar. These classes allow students to submerge themselves in another culture and to actively communicate with others in a way that digital language programs, like Rosetta Stone, cannot replicate. They broaden students’ perspectives and promote cultural awareness. At a campus that emphasizes diversity, diminishing the availability of these courses seems counterintuitive and it would work against UC Berkeley’s resolved efforts to foster an inclusive environment on this campus.

For me, studying Spanish in this setting is not only an opportunity to expand my perspective and sense of global awareness, but also to engage in a bit of self-discovery. I often receive looks of incredulity when I say I speak Spanish fluently, largely because I am not a native speaker nor does my appearance suggest I am of Hispanic descent. The majority of my family is of Irish and European origin, but my grandmother is Mexican-American. Therefore, I often wonder if my affinity for the Spanish language is somehow in my blood, or if my decision to study the language merely stemmed from a desire to expand my communicative capabilities.

My grandmother rarely talks about her childhood. As a child growing up in a rural farming community in Colorado at the end of the Great Depression, she once described to me how she became aware of the pervasive discrimination that continues to affect Hispanic immigrants. Her father got a job running a gas station in Fort Lupton, where she remembers seeing grocery store windows display signs that read, “Only English Spoken Here.” She said this was the first time she became truly aware of her Hispanic ethnicity.

“For me, studying Spanish in this setting is not only an opportunity to expand my perspective and sense of global awareness, but also to engage in a bit of self-discovery.”

But her confrontations with these prejudicial attitudes did not stop there. She recalled hearing her Caucasian friend’s mother complain about “those Mexicans” while in their home, and eventually her older sister would drop out of school to avoid this type of targeted discrimination.

However, these challenges were not the subject of all of her stories. She reminisced about her family gatherings, where her mother and grandmother made homemade tortillas and empanadas. She said moments spent with her family gave her confidence and made her feel proud of her cultural identity.

Hearing her divulge these memories of her past convinced me that I had an obligation to explore this part of my family lineage, and to somehow become more connected with her and her roots. My grandmother’s ethnicity is often overlooked or forgotten by my family members, as many of them are more inclined to identify themselves as American or Irish rather than Mexican-American. It seems as though over time, parts of her culture have been inadvertently obscured and left unrecognized.

Whenever I visit her, we exchange snippets of conversation in Spanish, words and phrases passing gracefully between us. I watch her face illuminate as she listens to her grandchildren speak animatedly in Spanish during meals, while my father and uncles remain amusingly unaware of what is said. It is in moments like these that I can begin to see the heterogeneity of my genetic makeup and the cultural diversity of my ancestors, sitting at opposite ends of the dining room table.

I take pride in my ability to engage with her in this way – to reignite the cultural identity that seemed to dissolve at the loss of her maiden name, Romero. I chose to pursue a Spanish minor not because I desired an ability to effortlessly formulate sentences in another language, but because I wanted to peer through the lens of another culture and acquire a new understanding of myself in the process.  

Oftentimes, my roommates and friends will make amusing attempts to communicate with one another in foreign languages, phrases in Chinese, Arabic and Spanish exchanged in rapid succession across my dorm room. I laugh at the barriers of comprehension that prevent us from understanding one another, but at the same time, I am enraptured and inspired by the variance of language fluency present among my peers. Only at a place like UC Berkeley would there be such evidence of ethnic diversity and cultural competence.

“However, with impending budget cuts to its language department, the campus might as well have displayed its own ‘English Only’ signs across campus.”

The type of knowledge that language courses impart on students is imperative in expanding their understanding of the world and increasing their sense of cultural awareness. Language professors guide students on a path of global understanding, broadening their perspectives and encouraging interpersonal exchange.

However, with impending budget cuts to its language department, the campus might as well have displayed its own “English Only” signs across campus. I would hope that UC Berkeley would recognize the importance of supporting language learning and choose instead to invest in the diversification and cultural awareness of its students.

Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].

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  • Paul Lindsey

    So, riddle me this: what is the purpose of the minimum 2 years of World Language at the HS level, required only of non-ESL students? As an incoming Freshman in ’77, I had 3 years of HS German. Did it help me achieve my BSME? No. Now, my 10th grade daughter struggles with her 2nd try at Spanish 1/2, currently with D, even with peer & home tutoring. We’re following the recommendation of her school counselor and enrolling her in Spanish during the local CC summer session, because if she passes at the CC, it counts as an entire year of HS Spanish. What’s the difference between HS and CC Spanish? At the HS, 80% of the grade is based on written performance on HW, quizzes & tests. At the CC, Spanish will be immersion, 3 hrs/day, 4 days/wk for 6 weeks. So back to the original question. What is the real purpose of the HS World Language reqmt? To enable incoming Freshmen to speak a language at a novice level? To act as a 4.0 breaker, a version of a ninja warrior challenge test to separate out otherwise qualified applicants? Or a sop to people who think that it isn’t fair that non-English speaking students have to learn English?

    • its to force the english speaking population of california to accommodate non english speaking immigrants rather than forcing the immigrants to learn english. the nanny state strikes again!