Over 27 percent of UNC’s incoming class speak a language other than English. But for many of those students, they remain unable to use those languages for college credit.
As a part of UNC’s General Education requirements, students are required to complete or place out of at least level three of a foreign language. This can look different for many students. Some students have experience in high school and can be placed into Spanish 105, some are international students from China and can get their language requirement waived and some were born in the United States, but learned Romanian as their first language.
This is the case for Abi Barbu, a sophomore at UNC. Barbu’s parents are immigrants from Romania, with Romanian being her first language. She didn’t learn English until pre-school.
“Romanian is something that is really important to me, because it's a big part of my identity,” Barbu said. “When I saw that UNC was offering a Romanian course last spring, I got super excited about it, because this is literally so important to me.”
Barbu said she is very comfortable understanding Romanian, but has more trouble speaking and reading it, so she was very excited to learn more about her language at UNC. Unfortunately, during an advising appointment, Barbu discovered that Romanian wouldn’t satisfy the language requirement because it only goes up to level two. It is considered a special topics course. This resulted in her having to take French.
Barbu said she still likes to think in Romanian in order to maintain the language.
“When I find myself looking for a word in Romanian, I pull out the word in French instead,” Barbu said. “Which is great that I’m learning something in French class, but it feels a little bit like I'm kind of erasing the thing that I'm supposed to know.”
Barbu said she recognizes the importance of learning new languages, but wishes that she could build upon her Romanian knowledge to satisfy the requirement, rather than take a language that is helping erase her knowledge of Romanian.
The language requirement should facilitate growth and knowledge, not hinder students from learning more about themselves and their heritage.
“For academic purposes, a student is considered a native speaker of a language other than English if the student was raised in a country outside the U.S. and was formally educated through all or most of high school in a language other than English," the UNC Language Placement website reads.
On the other hand, students who grew up speaking a language other than English or lived several years in another country are considered experiential speakers, and must take a test in that language for placement. If a language is not offered at UNC, experiential speakers cannot use that language to fulfill the foreign language requirement.
But, the Office of Undergraduate Curricula is working on changing this to make language at UNC more equitable.
“We're hoping to put together resources for people to be able to have their proficiency tested in other languages,” Lori Harris, the department manager in UNC’s Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, said.
The Office of Undergraduate Curricula will begin to form a database of resources to provide placement tests for students who know languages not offered at UNC. These tests will come from a variety of different resources including standardized tests, language instructors at other universities or instructors at UNC who know the language even though they do not teach it, Harris said.
“One of the things that we're really trying to do with the policy change is to make things more transparent and more equitable for everybody,” Harris said.
Another change to the language requirement will be that, in order for students to qualify for the language requirement waiver, they no longer have to have been born in another country. “Foreign” language requirement will now be changed to “global” language requirement to acknowledge the inclusion of indigenous languages.
Due to this change, American Sign Language can be used to satisfy the language requirement.
Unfortunately, none of these changes will change Barbu’s situation — she is already halfway through her third semester of French. But — hopefully — the changes will create a more equitable environment for the various languages known and spoken by UNC students.
The ability to take classes that link students back to their heritage and language is really important, Barbu said.
“I feel like language is communication, which is so important in every culture,” she said. “There's not a culture where communication isn't important.”
UNC must expedite the process for approving languages not offered at UNC. Without doing so, we continue to value languages, and therefore cultures, differentially.
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