Everything you wanted to know about SIPA’s language proficiency requirement

At SIPA, all MIA students (and MPA students concentrating in Economic and Political Development) must fulfill a foreign language proficiency requirement by graduation. Since you can satisfy this requirement in a number of ways and students come from a variety of backgrounds, figuring out how you should personally fulfill the requirement can sometimes be confusing for first-year students. This post is to provide an overview of the requirement and answer some frequently asked questions about the process.

Who must fulfill the language requirement in order to graduate?
All MIA students, as well as MPA students concentrating in Economic and Political Development

What exactly is language proficiency?
SIPA defines language proficiency by achieving a grade of B (3.0) or better in an Intermediate Level II (4th semester) language course at Columbia, or by passing a language proficiency exam (the grading process varies by language). By meeting these minimum requirements, students are able to prove proficiency in writing, speaking, listening and reading in the foreign language of their choice.

In general, a proficiency test is an exam, which measures how much of a language a person knows or has learned. A proficiency test is not bound to any curriculum or syllabus, but is intended to check the learner’s language competence.

How can an incoming SIPA student who is fluent in a language other than English fulfill the language proficiency requirement to graduate?
There are two ways students may prove proficiency without enrolling in additional coursework:

  • Students with a native language other than English who can demonstrate that a substantive part of their education (e.g., high school, college, or a prior graduate degree) has been in that language can bring a translated diploma from the institution to the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) to prove proficiency. Along the same lines, admitted international students may confirm with the Office of Student Affairs evidence of taking the TOEFL or IELTS as proof of proficiency in English as their second language during the first two weeks of school. These policies may change so it is best to check with OSA within your first couple weeks at SIPA if you would like to use one of these options to fulfill the language requirement.
  • Students can also demonstrate proficiency by passing a language proficiency exam. SIPA offers proficiency exams in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Proficiency exams are offered during orientation week and the first week of classes each semester. To demonstrate language proficiency in languages other than these listed, students can arrange appointments with individual departments. SIPA recommends that students take the exam in their first year in order to plan ahead if they do not pass the exam. Keep in mind that you can take a proficiency exam only once. See below for more information on the difference between a proficiency exam and a placement exam. Information about SIPA proficiency exams can be found here.

How can an incoming SIPA student who is not fluent in a language other than English fulfill the language proficiency requirement to graduate?
If you do not arrive at SIPA speaking a language besides English fluently, you can take a placement exam in a language you’ve previously studies to determine which course level at Columbia would be appropriate for you to enroll in. Or if you would like to learn a new language, you can register for a beginner level course. Keep in mind that elementary-level courses will not count toward the 54 credits required for the degree, but intermediate-level courses will count as electives. To prove proficiency for graduation, you must achieve a grade of B (3.0) or better in an Intermediate Level II (4th semester) language course at Columbia.

When should I start my language classes at SIPA?
If you begin at the elementary level, you should start your language courses in your first semester in order to get to the Intermediate Level II course in your final semester.

What is the difference between a proficiency and placement exam?

  • A proficiency exam is taken to demonstrate fluency in a language and to completely fulfill the language requirement. You take this exam during the first two weeks of the semester. It is recommended that students who want to use a proficiency exam to fulfill their language requirement should take the exam in their first year in case they do not pass the test. In the case that you do not prove proficiency through the exam, you must still fulfill the language requirement by enrolling in language classes. Keep in mind you can only take a proficiency exam once. Spanish, French, German and Portuguese proficiency exams are administered by SIPA. Proficiency exams in another language may be arranged through the department teaching in that language.
  • A placement exam is taken by any student who has had exposure to a language, but may not be fluent. Language placement tests allow academic advisors to identify the appropriate language course in which students are most likely to succeed given their current level of proficiency. Keep in mind you can only take a placement test for a language once. An example of someone who might take a placement exam is someone who took several years of a language in high school or college and does not speak the language fluently but might be able to test out of the elementary level courses. A placement exam might place a student into an intermediate level course whereby that student would have to take fewer semesters to reach the Intermediate Level II course with a grade of B or above to complete the language requirement quicker. Placement exams should be arranged through the department teaching in that language.

For additional information on SIPA’s exam policies and procedures, click here.

Can an incoming SIPA student who is not fluent in a language other than English take a proficiency exam?
While any student may sign up to take a proficiency exam, it is not recommended that anyone take a proficiency exam in a language they know they are not fluent in. If the student has some experience in the language but knows they are not fluent, it probably makes more sense to take a placement exam.

Does undergraduate coursework in a foreign language count toward SIPA’s language requirement, or is it taken into consideration for the placement or proficiency exams?
Undergraduate coursework will not be considered in evaluating a student for either a placement or proficiency exam. The student must display their level of command of the language through the exams.

How many languages are offered at Columbia University? How many of those languages have proficiency and/or placement exams?
In any given semester, Columbia offers upwards of 50 languages either on the Morningside campus, or through collaborative agreements with NYU (the NYU-Columbia Exchange) or with Yale and Cornell through the Shared Course Initiative. In the former case, students have to travel downtown to the NYU campus. In the latter, instruction is conducted through a videoconferencing arrangement.

SIPA offers proficiency exams in Spanish, French, German and Portuguese. Exams for other languages may be arranged through the specific language department. You can find a complete listing of language departments at Columbia here.

What languages are offered to SIPA students to take?
All language courses offered at Columbia University are available for SIPA students to take. In any given semester, Columbia offers upwards of 50 languages either on the Morningside campus, or through collaborative agreements with NYU (the NYU-Columbia Exchange) or with Yale and Cornell through the Shared Course Initiative. In the former case, students have to travel downtown to the NYU campus. In the latter, instruction is conducted through a videoconferencing arrangement. 

The Columbia Language Resource Center also has a partnership with New York University through which students may take courses at NYU. The NYU Exchange offered Akkadian, Aramaic, Cantonese, Ancient Egyptian, Haitian Kreyol, Irish, Quechua, and Filipino to Columbia students in 2015. Check the website for updated course offerings each semester. If a student wishes to enroll in a course other than what is listed on the NYU Exchange website each semester, they may petition for the course to be added (while this is possible, do not assume that any class will be automatically added).

Can I take a proficiency exam if the language isn’t offered at Columbia?
If you would like to take a proficiency exam in a language that is not offered at Columbia, please visit the Columbia Language Resource Center to see a list of exams offered by the Language Resource Center or by New York University through their partnership.

What do language classes look like at Columbia?
Language classes meet more often than other SIPA courses for the simple fact that learning a language requires consistent practice throughout the week. The formats vary depending on the language, course level and instructor, but generally they meet three to four times a week for 1 hour and 15 minutes per class. Advanced courses generally meet three times a week. Certain languages considered particularly hard to learn, like Arabic and Chinese, meet 5 times a week. Homework will also vary depending on the level and instructor, but often elementary courses consist of vocabulary and grammar practice while intermediate and advanced level courses focus more on composition, speaking, presenting, and doing research in the language. You can search specific class meeting days and times by looking at the language department’s course listings

Many of the language departments also offer extracurricular opportunities to practice the language through informal chats or to learn more about different cultures that speak the language. 

Where can I read more about SIPA language policies and languages offered at Columbia?

Now that you know all about SIPA’s foreign language proficiency requirement, do you have questions about what to include in your Language Resume for your application? See our recent post about the Quantitative and Language Resumes hereAnd remember that applications for Fall 2016 are due by January 5th for fellowship consideration, and the final deadline is February 5th!

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