USC Cuts German to Make Room for Arabic, Chinese

USC Cuts German to Make Room for Arabic, Chinese The University of Southern California is at the cutting edge of what may be a trend: Making cutbacks in teaching non-English European languages in order to devote more resources to Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, and others thrust into the spotlight by world events.

When the Modern Language Association released its study last year on trends in language enrollments, the figures that jumped out were the huge percentage increases for Arabic (+127 percent over four years) and Chinese (+51 percent). German’s percentage increase was just 3.5 percent. But because the bases for Arabic and Chinese were so small, the MLA found more students studying German (94,264) than Arabic and Chinese combined.

USC, which has been slowly bleeding its German program since 1991 by refusing to hire to replace departing faculty, has announced its shutdown.

Howard Gillman, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said reconsideration of German was natural. “There was a time when because of world events, the study of German and Russian and a few other languages and cultures struck us as really central. We now have a much broader perspective in the world.” In this environment, he said, the “enlarged vision” may require more attention for Hindi or Arabic or Chinese and less for German. “The relative attention on the old things is going to be smaller, while we show new respect” for emerging fields, he said.

To German scholars, those are fighting words. For a research university to close a German department “is irresponsible,” and it is equally irresponsible to frame the choice as one that may be necessary to support the study of languages outside Europe, said David E. Barclay, executive director of the German Studies Association and a professor of history at Kalamazoo College. Barclay said that he is a strong supporter of efforts to teach Arabic, Chinese and a range of languages, but that language study is important enough that it must not be seen as “a zero sum game,” in which the only way to strengthen Chinese is to cut German.

To imply that American society can manage without European languages because most European elites speak English is “patronizing and dumb,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, and for the next half century more, the currently existing industrial and post-industrial societies are going to dominate the global economy. stronger — look at the dollar and the euro. Germany is going to continue to be the major player.”

Indeed, it is. Then again, those who argue that Germans speak English have a point.

Aside from those who need a specific foreign language for their job, or for those who live in parts of the country where speaking Spanish is a prerequisite for navigating everyday life, there’s not much practical justification for Americans to learn any particular language.

I learned rudimentary German through immersion owing to my father’s being stationed there several times during my childhood. I studied it for two semesters in college in anticipation of serving there myself, which I in fact did for three years. While never able to speak or read German at a fluent level, I had sufficient mastery to test out on the Graduate Foreign Language Exam to satisfy my doctoral requirements. More than fifteen years later, though, my German skills have atrophied considerably.

Given that English is a Germanic language, making use of essentially the same alphabet, it’s far easier for Americans to learn than, say, Chinese or Farsi. Any practicality-based arguments, then, are harder to make for students who aren’t immediately going into the military, foreign service, intelligence community, or otherwise using those highly perishable skills immediately after graduation.

The rationale for maintaining foreign language departments in universities, then, have to be based on an “education for education’s sake” basis. We don’t, for example, teach Shakespeare or Medieval History because those subjects have practical application for most graduates. Rather, we hope studying those subjects will make graduates better rounded citizens, that grappling with them with expand and rewire the mind, and so forth. Presumably, learning German or French or Latin or whatever will have those same types of benefits.

There are, of course, students who will actually need specific language skills for their jobs. As Dean Gillman implies, the teaching of German and Russian during the Cold War was largely spurred by the government’s needs. So it is now with Arabic and Farsi.

As a general rule, language departments — especially those that emphasize non-Western languages — just about always welcome more students and more money to support those students. But when the money is coming from the Pentagon and the languages are those spoken in the Middle East, things get complicated.

So ever since the Bush administration started to talk about “critical foreign languages,” some educators have been enthusiastic and others have taken more of a wait-and-see attitude, preferring not to be among the first rounds of grants. This week, one of the administration’s new programs took shape with a Pentagon announcement that it had picked four universities to share $2 million for a new effort to train students in the Reserve Officers Training Corps in Arabic and other languages seen as crucial to American military and foreign policy.

Those running the new programs say that their efforts are being structured in ways that will have a major positive impact on expanding the knowledge base of future military leaders — a base that has been widely criticized as lacking with regard to the Middle East. And those running the programs say that they are being set up in ways that in no way compromise academic values.

The fact that institutions have “academic values” speaks to the fact that universities are about more than preparing graduates for the job market. By all means, they should continue to examine their curricula to ensure that they’re meeting the evolving needs of their society. But the goal is ultimately education, not merely training. Job skills are perishable; the ability to learn and to think is a lifetime tool.

Image: via Google

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    If phasing out German becomes a trend in institutions of higher learning nationwide it will have implications for scholarship that extend beyond the German departments. As you noted there are foreign language requirements for advanced degrees and German has frequently been the pick. The implication is the many of our scholars read German and, consequently, are more likely to turn to German sources than otherwise.

    Courses in one classical (usually Latin) foreign language and one modern foreign language (in my case, Russian) were requirements for graduation from my high school. Minimum of two years each although I took four of each. German wasn’t even offered (although I had some German because my German was fluent as a native in it and I picked up a lot more later while working there).

    I put my thoughts on learning languages here back when my site was relatively new.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    One quibble: there’s no such thing as “Chinese” (as applied to languages). Presumably, Mandarin is meant. There are also multiple Arabics if the spoken language is meant.

  3. Boyd says:

    I believe it’s worth pointing out that Arabic and Chinese are among the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn. It’s not a simple matter of “okay, instead of learning German, you’re going to learn Arabic.” Many of those who manage to pass several Germanic or Latin language classes will crash and burn if they were to study these “Cat IV” languages.

    So to some extent, abandoning the out-of-fashion-but-more-accessible languages for the sexy-but-extremely-difficult languages is going to be very frustrating for a lot of students.

  4. James Joyner says:

    One quibble: there’s no such thing as “Chinese” (as applied to languages). Presumably, Mandarin is meant. There are also multiple Arabics if the spoken language is meant.

    True ’nuff. Presumably, Mandarin and Koranic standard Arabic is what’s taught in most American universities that teach “Chinese” and “Arabic”. I’m not familiar enough with the languages, frankly, to know if those distinctions are more important than that Castillian Spanish and Hochdeutsch are taught in “Spanish” and “German” classes rather than other regional dialects.

  5. James Joyner says:

    I put my thoughts on learning languages here back when my site was relatively new.

    Amusingly, in response to something I blogged when this site was relatively new 😉

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Boyd’s point is well taken. I also think it’s worth pointing out that learning a language and becoming literate in a language are different skills and a hefty proportion of the native speakers of Arabic and Chinese aren’t literate (I recognize that “literate” is notoriously tricky to define).

    It’s been estimated for Arabic that becoming literate takes several years longer for native speakers than English does for native speakers of English.

    Language and literacy are politically-charged issues and all of this is hotly contested.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not familiar enough with the languages, frankly, to know if those distinctions are more important than that Castillian Spanish and Hochdeutsch are taught in “Spanish” and “German” classes rather than other regional dialects.

    The difference between Mandarin and, say, Cantonese is substantial—more like the difference between Castillian Spanish and Hochdeutsch than the difference between Hochdeutsch and, say, Schwyzertütsch.

    Mandarin and Cantonese are called dialects rather than different languages largely for political reasons and because the Chinese “dialects”, like the Arabic dialects, are diglossic.

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    Given that it is all a mater of resource allocation, I have less of a problem with this (and I took German in high school and college). What I do have a problem with is limiting the choice of what to cut to just another language. Woman’s studies and various racial studies might be a better candidate.

    As far as becoming literate in Chinese, I was able to pick up quite a few written words from context. Variation in scripts (advertising seems to be the worst for me) might give me trouble, but I could quickly pick them out on road signs, etc. Writing them (apparently the order you make the strokes and where you start the pen can be important) and saying them is very different.

    I remember on my first trip to Taiwan, I was ushered into the company’s managing director’s office. When the secretary brought us coffee, I responded with tse-tse. The director’s eyes lit up and he enthused how great it was for me to be able to speak Chinese (no doubt thinking about the press conference to be held the next day). I had to tell him that he had just about heard my complete collection of Chinese. I then had to re-learn how to say thank you when I went to Beijing (compared to Hong Kong where I first picked it up).

  9. DC Loser says:

    Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language (save for minor differences), so that a Mandarin speaker could read a Cantonese document and vice versa. However, it will be extremely difficult to have a conversation since the two don’t sound very much alike at all. (I speak both dialects, so I know what I’m talking about).

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    As far as becoming literate in Chinese, I was able to pick up quite a few written words from context. Variation in scripts (advertising seems to be the worst for me) might give me trouble, but I could quickly pick them out on road signs, etc. Writing them (apparently the order you make the strokes and where you start the pen can be important) and saying them is very different.

    Picking up a few characters here and there isn’t literacy any more than recognizing the “STOP” on the stop sign is.

  11. JKB says:

    Back when I was an undergraduate in engineering and physics, I was advised to take either German or Japanese rather than the French or Spanish I already had studied. I chose German. The reasoning was that most engineering, physics and chemistry research not published in English was either in German or Japanese. Perhaps the research centers have moved since the eighties, but I doubt it.

  12. Mister Biggs says:

    My wife who teaches high school math and got her degree in math pointed out that to enter a lot of mathematics masters and phd programs you need to be able to read german because a lot of math literature is in german.

  13. Elmo says:

    One need only take a short casual stroll around the USC campus. To see. The veil.

  14. John Burgess says:

    State Department’s Foreign Service Institute teaches several ‘Arabics’.

    The one everyone starts with–and which is most likely to be what is taught in a university course–is called Modern Standard Arabic. It’s what’s used in Arabic international news broadcasts and the pan-Arab media, unless there’s a particular reason for using something else.

    Beyond that, there are several broad categories of Arabic.

    Maghrebi Arabic is the collection of dialects spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The dialects make, more or less, the same pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical choices, many based of course, on Classical (Quranic) Arabic (in Arabic, ‘Fus-ha’). There is an enormous admixture of Berber, however, which is a non-Semitic languages to begin with.

    Next up is Egyptian, spoken obviously in Egypt. It has an odd collection of vocabulary based on Greek or Italian roots, pushed (with more or less force) into Arabic patterns. It’s also enormously inventive, creating words that work in Arabic out of other foreign words. For instance, the 10th form of Arabic verbs (with the prefix ‘ista’) implies a sense of seeking to do or be something. Egyptians have taken the name of the car Mercedes and created the word ‘istamerced’, ‘to aspire to own a Mercedes’.

    Then there’s Levantine, spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. You find a lot of Turkish loan words here, as well as French, left over from the Mandate period and refreshed through political/cultural connections.

    Gulf Arabic is just that: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Yemen, and Oman. Again, these are generalized into the same pool. There are many loan words from Farsi, Urdu, and Hindi here, as well as some African languages in Oman. Bahrain, an island of some 300 sq. mi., has over 20 dialects, the use of which will instantly identify the village from which the speaker comes.

    Finally, there is Iraqi Arabic. It share similarities with Gulf Arabic in some regards, with Levantine in others, and is unique in yet other aspects. Farsi, Turkic, and of course Kurdish flavor the language here.

    Modern Standard serves the educated (it’s only learned in schools) as the ‘universal Arabic’. Arabs with university educations can readily communicate with each other across the Arab world.

    An uneducated Iraqi is going to need an interpreter to talk with an uneducated Moroccan; the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary choice are just too vastly different. There’s a funny story about a member of a major Kuwaiti business family by the name of Zamil, turning up at a Moroccan airport. Immigration asked his name and simply wouldn’t accept his answers as the word ‘zamil’ in Moroccan slang stands for/stood for something along the line of ‘flaming faggot’.

    I’m told there are similar issues with Spanish and Latin American Spanish, with Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese.

    Egyptian Arabic, due largely to the overwhelming presence of Egyptian media (films and TV in particular, radio less importantly now) is sort of an informal standard for the less-educated. They’re simply exposed to masses of it and can comprehend it, if not replicate it.

    Anyone speaking in good, clear, Classical Arabic will either bring people to tears or set them into a fit of giggles, depending on context. Use it in a lecture or speech, and you weaken knees. Use it in buying tomatoes or shoes at the local market and you’ll be a great source of amusement for weeks to come!

  15. James Joyner says:

    Thanks, John!

  16. DC Loser says:


    Same for Chinese. I’ve heard a self professed level 5 Chinese (Mandarin) peaker doing his Mandarin, and it was atrocious. I don’t doubt for a second he could read and understand government publications, but he would be lost trying to get directions or buy himself a decent meal at a regular restaurant. I’m the other way around.

  17. James Joyner says:

    I’m the other way around.

    Heh. Me, too, with regards to German. I was never at anything close to Level 5 proficiency. I could hold an intelligent conversation with a 12-year-old and order chow but certainly not read tech manuals.

  18. John Burgess says:

    One of the unfunny jokes told among the graduates of the Foreign Service Institute’s Arabic program is that we end up qualified to negotiate treaties, but not to ask for a glass of water. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not as far as you might imagine.

    In my work in Public Diplomacy, I needed to use (or at least work around) myriad specialized vocabularies that simply weren’t taught at FSI. ‘Tri-phase electric supply’? Sorting out my driver’s cry for replacement ‘iblatine’ (Arabic pronunciation of ‘platinum’, but colloquially ‘spark plug’)?

    I took an advanced Arabic course in Cairo that was pretty much invented on the spot. It usefully combined reading the Quran, Egyptian high school and university texts, and lots of ‘field trips’ into non-tourist Egypt. Those trips would have been useful in every Arabic country in which I’ve served.

    One last anecdote: My wife, who accompanied me on my assignments, tried to keep up with my Arabic studies, though gov’t funding for her studies was limited, shall we say. But she gamely worked on Maghrebi, Gulf, Classical, Modern Standard, and Egyptian.

    The night we arrived in Damascus, from Cairo, I turned on the TV to catch the news. I left the room for a moment only to come back with her cursing a blue streak about the perfidies of Arabic. Here she was watching the news. She could pick up occasional words, but couldn’t make any sense of what was being said.

    I listened in and found myself equally baffled for a while. Then it all came clear: We were watching a Jordanian TV broadcast in Hebrew. Lots of vocabulary overlap; absolutely no useful grammatical similarities. She did figure out Shami (Syrian) Arabic even though it had its own perverse pronunciation of certain letters, different from the Egyptian perversions… little things like choosing not to pronounce the letter ‘q’ in common words, but always pronouncing it if the word was ‘classical’.

  19. sam says:

    On Chinese. Once, in another lifetime, I studied Chinese, Mandarin, with a tutor. I was interested in Classical Chinese philosophy and wanted to read some of it in the original. Anyway, my tutor used to take me to see Chinese films. These films were always in Mandarin. The films had two sets of subtitles–English and Chinese. The latter for folks who, like my tutor’s wife, spoke Cantonese (or some other dialect) and could not understand a word of Mandarin.

  20. Boyd says:

    I had similar experiences with Arabic as you and your wife, John, but from a cryptologic perspective. Back in my day, we were certainly a “jack of all trades, master of none” when it came to dialects. As for vocabulary, I could talk about ships and tanks and machine guns, but not so much about…well, anything non-military.

    I’ll always remember the amusement in the eyes of my comrades in the Sudanese Navy (that oughta give you a clue how long ago this was) when we pulled into Port Sudan for a visit. At a dinner (that few of my fellow sailors took advantage of; goat as the premier entrée drove them away) that our hosts threw for us, I tried to communicate with my new friends, but I had this nasty tendency to use one Egyptian word (good for Sudan), one Syrian word, one Iraqi word, one Saudi word, one Yemeni (specifically, Adeni) word, one Libyan word…well, you get the idea.

    I’m just thankful I really didn’t know anything Maghrebi. That would have likely spurred my Spanish memories and brought everything to a crashing halt. As it was, I was the hit of the night. Mostly, I’m sure, because they were laughing at me, not with me. 🙂

  21. yetanotherjohn says:


    I wasn’t arguing that a dozen words was literate. But that if you can pick up a dozen words so easily with out tutor or formal study, studying to get the 3 to 4 thousand words needed for literacy would not be an impossible task for the western mind.

    Personally, I find speaking intelligibly or hearing it much harder, but I suspect that has to do with my total lack of musical ability.

  22. John Burgess says:

    The benchmark for when you’re really starting to learn a language is when you start dreaming in it! It’s so shocking that it’s the kind of dream you can’t forget upon waking.

    Boyd: I worried about dialects washing over each other for a while, then I stopped worrying. Arabs are far more likely to try to figure out what you’re trying to say than, say, the French who upon hearing a grammatical error, cock the snoot and dismiss you on the spot.

    What did not help my Arabic, though, was finishing an 8-month course in Arabic on a Friday, then starting a French refresher the next Monday. That took a couple of weeks to sort out.

  23. floyd says:

    The study of European languages improves the student’s mastery of English. This unlamented loss will be a consequence of this shift, at a time when speaking and writing skills in the U.S.are on the wane.

  24. DC Loser says:

    If I wanted to improve my English, I’ll take English courses and read English books. If studying (or being fluent in) European languages improves mastery of English, we wouldn’t have all these people complaining about Spanish speakers in our own country. Heck, that would make it something to be encouraged.