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?
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?
Sad but true, this is the state of foreign-language education
United States, because many North Americans -- even some college
and administrators -- do not adequately value learning a foreign
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Man's [sic] mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.
You can buy whatever you want in English. To sell, however, you need to speak other languages.Overheard
|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.
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.Ivy League schools are moving away from language requirements.
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.
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!
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
Working with future students
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!Language learning is a luxury state college students cannot afford.
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.
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.