Evaluating the Language Requirement

March 31, 2014

Language Creates Global Citizens

Hartmut Rastalsky

How can we be so sure that almost everyone will benefit greatly from four semesters of studying a foreign language, sure enough to make it a requirement? The most important reasons fall into four interrelated categories: in-depth study of a foreign language promotes tolerance and cultural understanding; improves the student’s career prospects; improves the student’s knowledge of English (the requirement is automatically satisfied by students who are native speakers of a language other than English); and promotes personal growth.

Language and culture are inseparable. The language requirement is really a language and culture requirement. By studying a foreign language in depth, students learn a great deal about the culture(s) of the places in which that language is spoken. This leads to a broadening of perspective that is relevant wherever the student goes, at home or abroad. Seeing other ways of doing things, and of thinking about things, and learning to speculate creatively with an open mind about the reasons behind these alternative perspectives, are the most important things one learns in a language class. It means no longer taking for granted that one’s own way of doing things is the right or “natural” way. It does not have to mean adopting the customs of the foreign culture, but it means thinking about the reasons behind one’s own habits and assumptions and seeing new options. It means becoming more sensitive and open to cultural difference, at home and abroad. Of course there will still be misunderstandings and surprises, but one will be better equipped to notice what has happened, to think about it, to apologize when necessary, and to laugh with new friends about what went wrong. The language requirement fosters global citizens.

Of course a company with connections to Germany will hire the student who has also studied German, if it has the choice between two otherwise equally qualified students. But even without such a specific connection, the adaptability and awareness of cultural difference learned through the in-depth study of a language is an invaluable asset on the job market in the global economy. An internship strengthens a resume; successfully completing an internship abroad makes a resume stand out. Study abroad, a major or minor in a foreign language, even just completing the four-semester requirement all greatly improve a student’s job prospects. The language requirement opens these doors.

An important benefit of language study is that by learning how the foreign language works, a student learns a lot about her native language. Being more aware of one’s own language, being able to use it more precisely, or more playfully, is simply fun, makes a person more interesting to talk to, can be the stuff of romance. It is also a valuable asset in professional life. Language study contributes to this in another, less obvious way. Writing an essay in a foreign language means finding ways to express one’s ideas clearly, simply, and directly; ideally also flexibly and playfully. This is the kind of writing that others want to read and will respect. Universities have a mission to help students become better writers, to improve their ability to express themselves. The language requirement contributes directly to that mission.

In all of these ways, language study contributes to personal growth. It opens the doors to life-changing experiences, such as study abroad, an internship abroad, perhaps even a career abroad. It transforms the experience of traveling where that language is spoken. And it transforms the life of the mind: freed from the cage of the native language and culture, the language learner sees the world through new words and phrases, new sounds, new customs, new habits.

My favorite course to teach is German 101. What I love about it is seeing in students’ reactions the doors that are opening for them as they study this new language. Everyone will have different ideas about which of these doors are more important. I hope we all agree that we should do what we can to make sure students get a chance to walk through them.

Hartmut Rastalsky coordinates the rst and second year German courses at the University of Michigan, and teaches German for Engineers. He loves learning languages, and traveling in the countries where those languages are spoken.


Cultural Context Is The Key

Jennifer Young Yim

I, probably like many of you, list proficiency in languages on my resume but, if pressed, can barely function in any of them. I support the four-semester or equivalent requirement, but I believe it is often misinterpreted as conveying values that are untrue to the mission of our liberal arts college. I believe that we, as faculty/staff, have failed to convey the deeper purpose of our language learning to students. To our readers, then, I encourage you to throw away any notion that four semesters will lead you to fluency. The true value of language learning lies in the context of a cultural collective we are introduced to through the tedious tasks of verb conjugation and the agonizing process of learning idioms, often through unfortunate misunderstandings that happen in social settings and probably involve food. If considering a potential candidate for hire, I would seek a candidate who understands that some languages rarely use the pronoun for “I” because it is default in our nature to speak as a collective. (It is not “my” house because I am not the only person who lives there. It is not five separate great lakes of Michigan, HOMES, but one continuous water system that happens to have five large openings to the surface.) We need to imagine diverse perspectives if we are to develop empathy for others.

Becoming bilingual is not exceptional. Fluency in a single language, say Italian, is useful when we have occasion to conduct exchanges in Italian. However, it is rare that we are in a situation where English is not a viable option for effective communication. The world operates in an expansive diversity of linguistic expression and to think otherwise is to hold yourself back from your learning potential

I also believe that the language requirement, as it currently stands, can reinforce the notion in many minds that we are beginning from one language and expanding into a second. It gives an impression that becoming bilingual (or something close to it) is part of an elite higher education experience. Why else, then, would undergraduates pay for the privilege? According to my estimates, the cost of fulfilling the LSA language requirement is $8,632 for in-state and $26,798 for out-of-state students (based on 16 underclassmen credit hours). If this is something we ask our students to pay for, then why do we not value our students who come in already multilingual more? We have international students from Asia who feel their English skills are lacking, but I imagine if I tried to make friends and study in Cantonese, I would be a lonely student indeed. And the students who translated healthcare visits and legal documents for their parents from the time they could read – why are we not commending their skills? Instead, they were likely made fun of or bullied for being different, possibly for being poor, and probably for smelling like ethnic food. I believe if we are to value multilingualism, then we are obligated to value the paths to language acquisition, of which classroom instruction is just one of many.

I will leave you with the advice I give my students regularly. To those in the international studies major, which requires six semesters of a language, kudos. Kudos to those who opt to go beyond the required minimum, to those who pursue immersion experiences off campus. To all, consider not the structure of the language requirement, but the values it conveys. Try taking classes for more than one language. Value the individuals who are already multilingual. Ask them their stories of language acquisition – invest in getting to know them as valuable, likeable people. Be mindful of the English language privilege that permeates our campus. Take note of how quickly you may be speaking, the slang you are using, those American sayings that seem wholly obscure. What sick individual would beat a dead horse, anyways? Tell yourself over and over again you are capable of more. You simply are. As hard as those vocabulary quizzes are, and as painful as those oral exams are, recognize you are doing this by choice whereas many who are fluent in multiple languages are so because of circumstance. And above all, remember that your ability to consider how others may see the world, and how they might see you, is the true central value in learning another language. Learn to greet people in as many languages as you can. Someone once told me you cannot ask someone for help or be their friend if you do not say “hello” first. Words can only get you so far – understanding is what actually brings people together.

Jennifer Young Yim is Director the Global Scholars Program, a community that brings together international and U.S. students to engage in social justice education on a global level. Korean was her rst language and she studied Tibetan, then Tamil in college. Her proudest linguistic achievement is a T.V. interview she gave in Tamil in which she sounded like a child with poor grammar, but garnered enough attention that she helped obtain the funds and land needed to build a permanent school for children.