Foreign language requirement benefits some but not all

By Matt Hutchison, Columnist

Here’s an old joke: “What do you call someone who only speaks one language?” Answer: “American.”

Like most jokes, it has some truth but is terribly reductive. The more accurate answer is: “a native-English speaker.”

In reality, the U.K., Ireland, the U.S. and Australia all have low levels of bilingualism compared to continental Europe; additionally, what’s the most commonly learned second-language in continental Europe? English.

Of course, this learning of English is not due to some great desire to learn another tongue — it’s fueled by necessity, as English is the world’s lingua franca from science to technology, business, diplomacy and popular culture. Of course, the people who look to disparage the U.S. never point to this fact. They simply want to create the image of the enlightened European against the ignorant American. Any educated person knows that ignorance exists within all cultures and that any story or comparison largely relies on where the writer decides to shine their flashlight.  

While there are many cognitive benefits of being bilingual, I don’t think it’s a necessary stepping stone in a liberal education. In fact, recent studies show that bilingualism has both benefits and some minor detriments (e.g. worse assessment of performance). These results are far from definitive, since this research area is still inchoate; still, it’s gaining increased attention and provides food for thought.

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However, as we all know, foreign language was either a requirement in high school or is a requirement in college. For many doctorate programs, proficiency in a foreign language is required. If you’re lucky, you started taking Spanish in elementary school and were able to develop a strong foundation at a young age. But that doesn’t matter for many doctorate programs that require proficiency in Latin, Greek, French or German. Hopefully, learning one foreign language will make the acquisition of a second foreign language more intuitive. Count your blessings if you had educated parents who enrolled you in after-school French lessons because they knew it would come in handy should you pursue an academic career.

But why is proficiency in a second language considered more valuable than mastery in a single language? Of course, some people have a knack for languages. Folks who specialize in linguistics or philology and translate texts have a mastery of multiple languages. But is this necessary throughout the social sciences and humanities? Is this not akin to requiring one to be proficient in at least one musical instrument? While multiple talents are certainly impressive, I don’t believe that an excellent historian, statistician, or sociologist needs to display fluency in a second language to fully achieve their academic goals.

I’m not arguing for philistinism or ignorance; studying the etymology of English words often points the learner to other languages. Studying another culture in depth certainly should be a prerequisite for a well-rounded education, but I don’t think fluency in another language is a fair standard for everyone, especially when so many people forget the foreign language they’ve learned once they’ve finished school.

A better approach is to make foreign language an option in a dual-track sequence. For example, a student could choose between either studying the French language or French culture, history and norms. There would, of course, be some intermingling due to the necessity of understanding one to learn the other. However, the first track would be the same as it currently is, focusing on speaking, listening, reading and writing skills with a bit of culture mixed in, while the second would focus on the society’s culture, history and norms and how these influence its social structure and values (in government, education, family-life etc.) with a bit of language mixed in.

This system would allow students to better explore their interests. While it may be tough for an English speaker to find the motivation to become fluent in another language when English is so ubiquitous, any liberally educated person should be able to find the motivation to learn about how another culture ticks. Sure, fluency is required if one hopes to live and breathe another culture (assuming complete fluency is possible without growing up in multiple cultures), but this desire shouldn’t be forced. Expanding options makes education more inclusive and doesn’t discriminate against students who are only offered the chance to take a foreign language later in life.

Matt is a junior in Media.

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