BY SHAWN DOYLE
Late last year, SAIS announced the formation of a new language exchange program with Georgetown University. As a three-year trial, now in its first year of existence, the program allows SAISers access to Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Advanced German, Advanced Italian and Advanced Arabic courses. While the program is small, currently capped at 25 students from each university, it may come to have a larger impact than one might suspect.
It is plainly obvious that SAIS is in a uniquely difficult situation compared to other graduate international relations institutions. The nature of the field compels SAIS to offer a comprehensive suite of languages, yet SAIS’ graduate-level focus deprives it of the undergraduate base that helps sustain large language departments. The distance between SAIS and Homewood discourages all but the most committed students, insulating SAIS’ languages from others who can take on costs. The language department is left to figure out how to support a wide and deep language program with limited resources, while many students debate the merits of further language study compared to other courses and outside work.
SAIS’ position is not without benefits. An exclusively IR-focused graduate population allows SAIS to base courses around relevant topics, and the relatively more dedicated approach of graduate students can permit a faster-paced course. Yet, there are questions around both points. For at least the more difficult languages, expecting students to competently engage in advanced topics conversation within four short semesters of bi-weekly classes (reduced from three with online hours) is perhaps an unrealistic expectation.
Additionally, anonymous students have raised the issue of a lack of seriousness stemming from the exclusion of language from GPA calculation. Achieving proficiency is the overarching demand placed on the program and the majority of teacher resources must be focused on shepherding students toward passing their tests. Course availability for post-proficiency levels can therefore be thin, and the sections that are open often become mixed ability level courses.
An exchange program with Georgetown, or other nearby schools, may offer some solutions. Expanding access to new languages and underserved levels is a significant improvement. As it stands, the exchange remains a small and limited program. Georgetown students have access to SAIS’ Hindi, Urdu, Burmese, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai course offerings. Five SAIS students and 13 Georgetown students are currently participating. The current goal for SAIS’ languages department is to achieve parity in program participation. In the long term, both Georgetown and SAIS are reportedly open to expanding the exchange’s scope after the initial trial. While language will always be a core aspect to SAIS’ identity and offerings, a limited but expanded outside exchange program offers solutions to students seeking additional languages and niche courses like intensive instruction.
For students interested in more information on the exchange program, please direct inquires to Language Studies Program Director Marco Campos – firstname.lastname@example.org