Small World
Why Undergraduates Should Study Foreign Languages

Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan
Chair, Dept. of Geography / Bridgewater State College
UPDATED May 13, 2009

"I was not born speaking four languages, but here I come. I do now."
Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello

Consider these questions:

    Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
    A: Bilingual

    Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
    A: Trilingual, or polyglot

    Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
    A: American

Sad but true, this is the state of foreign-language education in the United States, because many North Americans -- even some college professors and administrators -- do not adequately value learning a foreign language.

Foreign Language Learning

Man's [sic] mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

You can buy whatever you want in English. To sell, however, you need to speak other languages.

Porque? Warum?
See results compiled by University of Memphis
Ironically, Bridgewater State College -- over the strong objection of some internationally-oriented faculty members -- eliminated the foreign language requirement in 2005, the same year that the U.S. House and Senate designated 2005 the Year of Languages. Fortunately, languages are still an option within the core curriculum, and many wise students are choosing to study them.

The decision is being revisited; this page stands as a reference to influence those participating in the debate and students making their own choices within the current core curriculum.

Myths and Reality

I was astonished to hear the following reasons and excuses during the discussion of foreign languages at Bridgwater. I recount them here -- along with the counter-arguments I made throughout the discussion -- because students keep asking me, "Why did they do that?" I think students have a right to know.

Languages are too hard! They take too much time!
In fact, language learning does get more difficult with age, and even by the age of 18 or 20 or 25, it is not as easy as it would have been at the age of 5 or 7. Still, most people can do it; those who can demonstrate a real inability to learn languages could have the requirement waived under the old rules, and this exemption could have been retained.
    Also, the fact that it is hard is one of the advantages of foreign language study. The quote from Chief Justice Holmes at the top of this page applies -- language learning is good mental exercise! Doing this sort of exercise is exactly what college is for. Even if one studies the "wrong" language in college, learning other languages later in life will be facilitated by having studied a language previously.

Everyone in global business and hospitality speaks English.
It is true that English is increasingly the language of business, and it is very likely that a traveler can find an English speaker with whom to converse, and who can translate for others in his or her organization. In my experience, even if I can rely on someone in an organization speak English, other people do not, and I can be much more effective -- not to mention polite -- if I can speak to them in at least rudimentary terms. It is also good to be able to read signs and in-house documents that might not be translated.
    When traveling in Nicaragua in early 2007, I met a couple of businessmen from Florida who were doing very well in real estate in the tourist areas of Managua. They advised one of my students who is interested in that business that he MUST learn the language. Even though it is possible to do business by hiring a translator, they said, people will not trust a person nearly as much if he or she has to rely on a translator for everything.
    Finally, even though top-end hotels and restaurants throughout the world have English-speaking staff, it can be much more economical -- and more fun -- to be able to stay in places that do not cater to the monolingual.
Ivy League schools are moving away from language requirements.
It is difficult to believe that this argument -- so easily discredited -- was advanced during the debate, but indeed it was. I did some fact-checking, which is detailed below.
Language learning can be romantic, too!
Pam & James
These kids met in French class.

I also knew once knew a French man and a Brazilian woman who fell in love in a lambada dance class. They had a great time learning English together!

Entry point to culture
Deeper learning of culture
Future employment
Working with future students
Graduate study
Cheaper & better travel
Sharpen those synapses
Improve your English
Enjoy more music and films
Courses in the major are more important than language courses.
This seemed to be the real motivation behind removing the foreign-language requirement. Majors at Bridgewater State College are limited to approximately 36 hours, but a number of programs require "cognate" courses in other disciplines that bring the total closer to 50 or more hours. In order to give students a greater degree of flexibility in their class selection, a major goal of the core curriculum "review" was to reduce the size of the core curriculum.
    (I put the word "review" in quotes above, because an academic review typically begins with a careful examination of the current program and comparisons to peer institutions, neither of which was part of this process, though several faculty members asked for both.)
    An undergraduate major with 50 or more credits is not, in my view, an undergraduate major. It is a professional or quasi-graduate program.

Removing language requirement gives students freedom of choice.
This is not an academic argument, and it was not applied to other learning priorities during the debate. Once a student has made a choice to pursue higher education at a particular institution, it is the responsibility of the faculty to establish priorities. One purpose of general education is to prepare students to make choices about subjects they would like to learn in greater depth. Many benefits of higher education -- particularly outside of one's chosen major -- become apparent only after they have been completed. A consumer model in which people take whatever they like is perhaps appealing, but it is not higher education.
    Since I did not prevail in this debate, and students do now have a choice, I feel obligated to provide as many students as I can with some other ways of thinking about the question.
A foreign language requirement gives one department a "monopoly" in the curriculum.
This is a bit difficult to explain, because it was another non-academic argument. Most core curriculum requirements are broad enough that they can be met by courses offered by two or more departments. Since Bridgewater has only one Foreign Languages Department, it would control the "market" for this category of course. This argument had the effect of creating a "turf" battle where one need not exist.
Anything short of total fluency is a waste of time, so a one- or two-year requirement is worse than no requirement.
Here is where I fear I contributed to the problem. At an early stage of the debate, I said that we should increase the requirement from one year to two years, which is what most schools require. I even argued that the one-year requirement was more of an inoculation than a valuable learning experience. Since I thought we were having a serious discussion about providing the strongest possible curriculum, I made this statement with the intention of encouraging my colleagues to support an expanded language requirement. In retrospect, I should not have created this opening for opponents of the language requirement -- a two-year requirement was apparently out of the question, and if a one-year is not very useful, we should not make students complete it. Had I known that a ZERO was a possibility, I would never have complained about the inadequacy of the one-year requirement!
    Since the debate took place, I have had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and Cape Verde with BSC students. I found that even those with minimal language education were able to make some use of it, and that a rudimentary understanding of Spanish or Portuguese was enough to make a difference for these students and for the people they met.
Language learning is a luxury state college students cannot afford.
I really do not like to acknowledge this, but the debate about the foreign-language requirement at Bridgewater State College included an element of class bias. This was the suggestion that we should remove the foreign-language requirement so that students could focus on courses with more direct vocational benefits. Many political leaders outside of the state-college system would like to see us move in a vocational direction, and away from the provision of top-notch liberal-arts program. Elite schools can continue to provide this for the children of the rich and the academically exceptional, but ordinary young people from middle- and working-class families do not have the time for real learning at that level. Anything that we do at the state colleges that sacrifices liberal-arts education in order to provide for vocational preparation lends support to this view, and is a disservice to our core constituents.

Foreign Language Requirements in the Ivy League

Because Brown University has no foreign language requirement for undergraduates, opponents of a foreign-language requirement argued this represents a trend among Ivy League schools. In fact, Brown is the only Ivy without a foreign language requirement, because it is the only one with no general education program. The requirements vary in the details and in the mechanisms for obtaining waivers, and in the case of  Cornell only Arts & Sciences majors are included, but all of the Ivies except Brown still have a foreign language requirement.  Have a look:

Brown has no grades and no general education requirements. It does admit only 10 percent of applicants, on the basis of their tests, essays, grades, and selection of courses taken in high school. Brown sustains several foreign language departments, and some concentrations still require a language. It is difficult to imagine that the vast majority of students there are without foreign language proficiency.

Cornell: (Arts & Sciences B.A. only)
    Note: At Harvard, business faculty and others outside of the arts & sciences are not involved in deciding GERs.

My own undergraduate school (UMBC) is far from the Ivy League, and I am proud to say that it has increased the language component of its general-education requirements since I graduated.

Public Diplomacy

Diplomats learn languauges. In fact, the United States Department of State is well known for its language-instruction courses, one of which I have used to improve my Portuguese. One reason that the U.S. Congress supports foreign-language education is the recognition that public diplomacy is the responsibility of U.S. citizens, and diplomacy requires language skills. The Ugly American is a book whose title has come to stand for a kind of arrogance that many around the world have come to associate with the United States. Every North American who travels abroad without learning at least to say "please" and "thank you" in the local language contributes to this image; everybody who makes an effort to learn the local language helps to negate this stereotype.

The Bush Administration has recognized the importance of public diplomacy as part of a terrorism-prevention strategy. This involves a lot of things like television and radio campaigns whose merit may be debatable. Individual citizens learning languages, however, is a very tangible and positive contribution to the effort.

Special Note for BSC Students

Students operating under the current General Education Requirements (GERs) are still required to complete the foreign language component, and will be required to do so, even if they graduate after the new GERs take effect. All students should consult with their advisors about their individual situations.

Students who enter under the new Core Curriculum -- which will begin in Fall 2006 -- will not be required to complete a foreign language, but they can count certain foreign language courses toward their humanities requirement. Again, it is important for each student to consult with his or her advisor for individual details.

The removal of foreign languages from the GER does not mean that foreign languages are unimportant. The foreign language requirement was removed -- over the objections of many professors -- as part of a series of compromises that allowed the college to create a new core curriculum program that has a lot of other benefits. The compromise also allowed for the expansion of free electives and of cognate requirements in certain professional majors. Even some who argued that the college should not require foreign languages themselves studied foreign languages in college.

At least one academic program has already adopted a foreign language requirement for its majors, and other departments may follow. If you think this is a good idea, let your department chair know! Meanwhile, students in any major can choose to pursue a world-class education by availing themselves of foreign languages while they are at Bridgewater.

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The views expressed here are solely those of Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan.
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Geography
Latin American & Caribbean Studies
Bridgewater State College

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