Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Languages: A Gateway Skill

The peace sign between my church
and my campus is in many languages.

Most people who know me know that although I am not fluent in any language other than English (and that one is debatable), I regularly use other languages to the extent that I can, and that I have benefited greatly from being able to do so.

I understand why some students resist studying foreign languages; I declined to do so the first time it was an option for me, in 8th grade. My next opportunity was in 10th grade, and I loved it! In my senior year, I took German III, Spanish II, and Latin I, and enjoyed all three. 

Below is a statement I presented as part of current debates about bringing a language requirement back to my university, where it was removed about a decade ago. 

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Buenos tardes. Boa tarde. Guten abend.

If you understood any of that, you can thank the general-education program at your own undergraduate institution.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about proposed changes in general education. Because general education is about half of my teaching load and about half of what makes teaching worthwhile to me, I have a great deal of interest in how it is organized. For this reason, I am grateful for the great effort that the committee has devoted to the work of revising general education at BSU.

I am convinced that many of the most important outcomes of general education can be achieved, however, by inclusion of courses in foreign languages.

Because of a general aversion to foreign languages in the United States – and an increasingly hostile climate to anything at all that seems foreign – students who are not required to study a foreign language are not likely to do so.

The current Core Curriculum has been an experiment – without I.R.B. approval – in giving students more choice in the area of foreign languages, among other things. The promise of choice has been a false one; a decade without a requirement has resulted in fewer choices. In other words, a university without a foreign-language requirement is, to a great extent, a university without a foreign-language option.

And a university without a robust foreign-language option is not a university in any meaningful sense of the term.

Many of my colleagues and I have spoken or written at every available opportunity about the need for any revision in BSU’s general-education program to reverse the mistake of the Core Curriculum – which we fought doggedly at the time – by expanding foreign-language opportunities. 

A lack of competence in languages places unnecessary limitations on what my students can gain from my geography classes. More importantly, it places sharp limits on the value of their degrees.

Especially in these xenophobic times, it is malpractice to recommend monolingual students for baccalaureate degrees. In our gateway cities, in global businesses, and in graduate schools, they need to have studied at least one foreign language at the college level. Instead, many of our students are graduating with weaker language skills than those with which they enter.

Thank you. Gracias. Obrigado. Vielen Dank.

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See more of my thoughts on the value of language learning on my Small World page, which I created during the last round of foreign-language debates on our campus.

Lagniappe

Whatever happens at the university level, I am proud to say that my department will soon be requiring a foreign language for all students completing B.S. or B.A. degrees in geography.

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