Ramirez: For better language classes

At the beginning of this year, after four years of taking French in high school, two separate trips to France to study the language and four semesters of French L5 grammar and introductory literature classes, I was ready to tackle another language. I wanted to open a door to communication with millions of individuals I would have never otherwise been able to speak to. The prospect of being able to immerse myself in a culture completely foreign to mine through written text excited me. Despite it being a difficult task to accomplish time-wise, I was ready to begin my hunt.

Since I’d travelled to Jordan the past spring break, I opened the bluebook to “Arabic” first. What would I have given to be able to understand the Palestinian refugees I encountered daily in Amman, to be able to ask the small children I played a pick-up game of soccer with what time they had to go home for dinner. I skimmed past the Arabic grammar classes to encounter … nothing. No literature classes, no culture classes, nothing. This must be a mistake, I thought. Arabic is spoken by 280 million people, it is the official language of 26 countries and is the language of one of the most important religious texts in history: the Quran. Its historical importance is tremendous!

I then moved onto Mandarin Chinese. Surely Yale would offer classes past basic language learning courses given that Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. Again, I was disappointed. I moved on. Hindi will be different, I thought. If not an interest in culture, Bollywood would surely have popularized the language enough for Yale to offer film and literature classes. Wrong again. Turkish, Tamil, Korean and Indonesian proved to be just as disappointing.

Finally, I turned to the Spanish section. If I wasn’t going to take a new language, I would at least take a class in my native language, something I have not done since I moved from Colombia to the United States more than ten years ago. I encountered the following: “Spanish for the Medical Profession,” “Legal Spanish,” “Spanish in International Politics and Media” and plenty of survey courses in literature and poetry. Yale had labeled Spanish merely as a useful language to know in the United States.

Although Yale offers classes in 53 different languages, only French, Spanish, German and to some extent Italian, provide students with opportunities beyond the basic learning of a language. “Classy” European languages receive all of the attention. Is Yale sending out the wrong message to the world? Sure Yale promotes its image as a large international research university by accepting a large contingent of international students, by encouraging us to explore majors such as international studies, Modern Middle Eastern Studies, Russian Studies, etc. But the University seems to have forgotten one very crucial element, the study of non-European literature and art in its original language.

Administrators may argue that there isn’t enough interest in these classes to warrant offering courses like Arabic writing from 1500-1800 or the progression of Hindi literature in post-colonial India. Perhaps if students were presented with the opportunity to take such a class, they would choose to begin taking a language very foreign to their own. And even if languages with non-Roman alphabets may need to devote more time to grammar basics, there will likely be students who go beyond these basic requirements.

Civilization has surely produced enough interesting material for us to study. Call me a hypocrite for having taken French for two years at Yale instead of a non-European language. Categorize me in the minority for advocating the study of a language for its history and its beauty, not simply for its practical applications. Regardless, in a globalizing world, it pays to know a culture other than your own, along with its literary and artistic traditions. Perhaps Yale should take another look at its language program and offer more diverse language classes, as well as more in-country study programs for students.

Perhaps then language at Yale would cease to be simply a distributional requirement.


  • JackJ

    Unless you’re one of those uniquely gifted individuals who can assimilate languages seemingly effortlessly you’ll discover that Arabic and Mandarin Chinese are languages that require significant investments of time and effort to master. For example to achieve working fluency in Arabic the State Department sends you to an eight hour a day class for 44 weeks and then to an immersive training program abroad for another 44 weeks. Thus it is a two year full-time investment and then you still may not be able to handle serious philosophical or theological discussions. Chinese is much the same. To believe you’ll achieve the same level of expertise in a three hour per quarter or semester course is at bit on the “wishful thinking” side.

    I’m sure the university has considered this when looking at instituting literature courses in foreign languages. Since many students come to college fluent in a Romance language or semi-fluent in German or Russian you’ll find a proportionate number of literature courses taught in those languages.

    If you are one of those amazing capable language students then I suggest you undertake a self-guided exploration of literature in the language of your choice. Certainly there are many examples of self-educated leaders like Lincoln, Churchill et al.

  • DLee

    Angela, I completely understand. Even the language classes (Arabic in particular) focus on the Academic study of the language, not necessarily for daily usage. Most of us do not want to take Arabic to read the Qu’ran–though that would be great. But speaking would be nice. Currently, there are not mandatory speaking sections in Arabic. Seems like Rosetta Stone teaches colloquial Arabic better.

    I know Harvard has all of the Rosetta Stone software at the discounted price of $100 or something. maybe Yale should invest…

  • SillimanAlum

    Not sure I understand this editorial. Since when are there not “classes past basic language learning” for foreign languages? Do classes about film taught in Chinese not count? What about foreign languages classes focused specifically on great literary works? At the very least, the claims here do not apply to the EALL course offerings, and almost certainly not to other languages as well. Does anyone fact check these editorials?