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Originally published March 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 13, 2009 at 9:25 AM

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Foreign languages take hit in higher-ed budget

Foreign-language study is taking a big hit this year at the state's community colleges and universities, as those institutions scramble to save money in the face of state budget cuts.

Seattle Times higher-education reporter

Foreign-language study is taking a big hit this year at the state's community colleges and universities, as those institutions scramble to save money in the face of state budget cuts.

The University of Washington, thanks to a change in its language requirement, plans to reduce the number of seats offered in first-year Spanish, Italian and French by up to 2,500 this fall. And, beginning in spring, Seattle Central Community College will no longer offer a full second year of Spanish study. Institutions across the state are considering similar cuts.

"It's amazing to me, given that there's so much more emphasis on Americans becoming more globally aware," said Marisa Tubbs, a Seattle Central student who helped organize a protest Thursday against course cuts. "We're already lacking in languages. In Europe, kids are bi- or trilingual by the age of 10. It's very unfortunate."

Tubbs, who hopes to transfer to the UW next fall and complete a minor in Spanish, said she plans to commute to Bellevue Community College in the spring quarter, after Seattle Central eliminated an early-morning Spanish class she'd planned on taking.

Ron Hamberg, Seattle Central's vice president for instruction, said the college has cut classes that weren't attracting many students, with the intent of doing the least amount of damage.

He said that transfer students should still be able to major in a foreign language, even if it means picking up extra classes once those students are enrolled at a four-year school.

In total, Seattle Central is dropping about 4 percent of its classes this spring but could cut more come fall, with budget reductions potentially reaching $2.3 million over the next two years, according to a campus e-mail sent Thursday by President Mildred Ollée.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the New York-based Modern Language Association, said language instructors are often part-time or adjunct — and therefore easier to lay off in tough times.

Nationwide, she said, tenure-track job openings in languages have been dropping while demand from students remains high, especially in languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

Studying a foreign language can reap benefits that range from broadening an individual's way of thinking to helping businesses sell more goods abroad, proponents say. But languages tend to be more expensive to teach than many other courses because they require more interaction. At the UW, for instance, first-year language classes are limited to 22 students.

The UW cuts were made possible by a significant policy change. Beginning next fall, students who have completed three years of foreign-language study in high school will be deemed to have satisfied the university's undergraduate-language requirement.

Previously, students had to pass a proficiency test, which required many to take a quarter or two of language classes at the UW.


"We are hoping this will encourage more high-school students to take a third year of language while they are there," said Bob Stacey, the UW's divisional dean of arts and humanities.

Stacey said the policy change was in the works before the anticipated state budget cuts were announced. The UW had planned to use the estimated savings of $1 million each year to shore up other language offerings. Now, the cuts are just part of a broad range of reductions being made at the university.

The UW is facing a cut in state funding of up to 20 percent over the next two years.

The university is making the language cuts with the intent of preserving the breadth of offerings, Stacey said. Students will still be able to choose from some 55 languages — everything from ancient Sanskrit to Uighur (pronounced wee-gore), a language spoken in northwest China.

Continued expertise in rare languages is vital for national security, he said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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