Learning a Foreign Language

By Mieko Yamamoto

I won’t lie, speaking English has its advantages.

Little dialogue occurs on the importance of learning a foreign language.

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. are no longer requiring students to fulfill a foreign language requirement and are significantly cutting the number of programs offered. As a result, there has been a steep decline in both foreign language instruction and enrollment.

When I moved to London at the age of six, I had no idea how to even count to ten. But ever since English became the dominant language in my schooling, I’ll admit that my life has become much easier. I can travel around the globe and assume that there are people who speak the same language–wrong. I came to despise this mindset.

According to the Modern Language Association, colleges lost a total of 651 foreign language programs. In a span of three years from 2013 to 2016, there was a drop of 9.2%. Furthermore, the decline in programs constituted a decline in the number of students enrolling in foreign language courses. This 9.2% drop in foreign language enrollment is the second largest in history since MLA’s tracking that began in 1958.

Inside Higher Ed arguably brings into question a topic of debate. Does the ability to speak a foreign language at an elementary level enhance students’ critical and analytical skills?

Studies have shown learning a foreign language does not seem to attain open-mindedness and cross-cultural understanding. Instead, the phrase “language proficiency” seems only to assess one’s skills-based simply on the passing of exams and grades. This maintains that cultural understanding is seldom meaningfully addressed. However, I stand to argue that in today’s globalized world, speaking another language is a valuable skill.

Becoming Informed Citizens

The requirement for students to learn a foreign language aims to prepare individuals to become conscientious and informed citizens. Using Columbia College’s mission as an example, language is a crucial step in understanding a country and its people:

  1. Sensitizes students to world cultures, simultaneously making them aware of their own culture within that context;
  2. Introduces students to the differences in structure, grammar, and syntax that distinguish two languages, and to the intimate links between language and cultural meaning; and
  3. Contributes to the development of students’ critical, analytical, and writing skills.

There is a lack of evidence as to why colleges no longer require students to learn a foreign language. However, studies have brought into question the issue of ethnocentrism.

Non-native English speakers around the world learn to speak English to communicate with the majority. However, there seems a dire need for English-speakers to understand other cultures and languages.

Meeting Halfway

What originally prompted The Modern Language Association to begin examining the results of the crisis on the teaching of foreign languages in colleges and universities is due to the result of 9/11. With the inability to communicate with other parts of the world, it became evident that there was a substantial need for Americans to understand variant cultures and languages.

Back in 2005, Daniel Yankelovich expressed in The Chronicle of Higher Education the need for colleges and universities to reshape the demands of society. I believe that even after fifteen years, his statement remains applicable:

“With each passing year it grows more obvious that colleges must prepare Americans to deal more competently with people from other parts of the globe. It’s not that educated Americans must become cultural experts. That is neither practical nor desirable: Experts cannot meet the threat. Instead, our whole culture must become less ethnocentric, less patronizing, less ignorant of others, less Manichaean in judging other cultures, and more at home with the rest of the world.”

Another Language?!

I moved to Italy halfway through high school, and though I was already fluent in two languages and saw how impossible it was to become fluent in another in a short span of two years, studying Italian was compulsory.

Although I achieved less than the bare minimum to have an ongoing conversation, learning the language allowed me to connect with individuals with whom I otherwise would not.

The act of learning a foreign language isn’t plainly about the supplementary benefits of improved memory, problem-solving or critical-thinking skills. Instead, it’s about the ability to connect with people from various cultures. Therefore, colleges should require students to learn a foreign language.

No, I regret to inform you that I am nowhere near fluent or even proficient in my Italian.

However, the step I took in learning a different language was a step into understanding someone else’s culture, the language they grew up with, and the language they call their mother tongue. Although foreign language instruction may appear for some merely fulfilling a requirement to graduate college, this requirement could potentially be the first step to empathy.

There’s an aspect of beauty in those first few steps, and they could be far greater than we imagine.