SCHIFFRES: Kill the language requirement

When Yale was founded, students were supposed to converse only in Latin — even in dorms. Nearly a century later, a member of the Yale Corporation moved “dead languages” be made elective in favor of courses “more meaningful and useful for contemporary life.” Requirements relaxed, but it wasn’t until 1945 that Yale, reassessing its graduation prerequisites, codified the precursor to today’s language requirement. Now, it is time for Yale to evolve once again: Get rid of the language requirement.

Before arguing against a specific requirement, though, I should define my litmus test for a legitimate College mandate. Put simply, Yale should require students do something only if Yale knows that something will be the best use of each student’s time. Learning how to write well, for example, is a fair requirement. Beyond its importance to clear thinking, effective writing is one of the few skills every Yale student will use regularly throughout his or her life. The same cannot be said of speaking a foreign language.

The conventional wisdom, stated on the Center for Language Study’s website, is that knowledge of a foreign language has become “increasingly important” in our increasingly globalized world. That sounds nice — like Yale values diversity — but is it actually true? Is knowledge of Zulu or Dutch — two languages one can study to fulfill the language requirement — really “increasingly important” to succeed in the world? Ask yourself: Of all the successful people you know, how many of them speak those, or any foreign language, regularly? Either the administration actually believes what it says and only mainstream, “increasingly important” languages — such as Mandarin, Hindi or Arabic — should count toward the language requirement, or it tacitly admits not all students need to know another tongue in order to succeed.

Now let me address the conflict of my American-centric attitude. English is the official language of more countries than any other in the world. This claim is not American in nature — it is a fact. This is not a claim that English is inherently superior to any other language. Nor is this a claim that language’s only value is for communication. But the only use Yale knows every student will have for language is communication, and the only language most students will need is English.

So does this mean the philosopher shouldn’t study German or the classicist Latin? Of course not. It means Yale, before making a blanket mandate, ought to consider the biology major forced to spend three terms studying a language he will forget every word of by graduation. Many of us justify that seemingly wasted time by focusing on our enjoyment of the class (read: Yalies like to learn). Moreover, we benefit from it — perhaps now we can read a foreign text or apply to an international internship.

“It wasn’t the worst thing ever,” we tell ourselves. But was it the best? How many of us continue after three semesters? At Yale, we get only a handful of credits. Who knows what intellectual gems we sacrificed for those 4.5 for language — the secrets of the brain, music composition, Greek mythology? The question is not, “Was studying my language really that bad?” Rather, ask yourself, “Was that the best way I could have spent my time?”

The legitimate counter to this question is, “Yes, the benefits of learning a particular language might be arbitrary, but a second cultural perspective on the nature of society and life is universally invaluable.” If this is true, if the language requirement is really to offer students a new lens through which to view the world, then students should be able to fulfill it through culture classes taught in English. Surely reading Jean de La Bruyère’s “Caractères” offers students more insight into French culture than merely memorizing the meaning of the word “caractères.” To fully understand a culture one needs speak its language, but then again one also needs study it for more than three semesters. If Yale wants to instill a worldly perspective, it should expose students to a culture’s spirit, not its syntax.

Like Yalies that came before us, we are adults paying money for an opportunity to educate ourselves as best we can. With the information explosion, though, there is no longer a finite sum of knowledge that defines an educated individual. We must sacrifice some classes — some education — for others we value more. As students, we have a duty to make the best tradeoffs we can; as customers, we have a right. So is language study a tradeoff that is in all our best interests? Even The Yale Herald knows the answer: “Listen long and hard. You simply won’t hear [a Yalie say] … ‘This language requirement is enriching.’”

Gavin Schiffres is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at gavin.schiffres@yale.edu.

Comments

  • silliwin01

    Learning a foreign language enhances your understanding of English syntax. Moreover, your closing sentence is unequivocally false.

  • grumpyalum

    Hear Hear! I was fluent in Spanish before coming to Yale. I took Spanish as a way to get rid of the requirement.

    No one who thinks of the language requirement as a requirement thinks of it as enriching. People who want to learn another language simply do so!

  • GeoJoe

    Completely agree with this article. The language requirement should be killed.

    One important point not explicitly mentioned is that the language requirement is completely unfair to students will little high school preparation in language, in a way that no other Yale requirement is. No matter how much English you took in high school, everyone needs to take 2 writing credits. But students who succeeded in an AP language course only need to take 1 credit of language, comprising 1/36 of a Yale education, which seems minimal. On the other hand, if a student is unable to place above L2 or simply wishes to study a new language, then s/he must spend 1/8 of his/her Yale education (4.5 credits) on learning basic grammar, etc. There’s no consistent rationale for this enormous disparity, and so the language requirement must die.

    • morse_14

      That’s not the right way to look at it. The language requirement requires a certain amount of proficiency. How many terms you have to take is simply not factored in.
      If you didn’t have AP language in high school, then you have to do extra work to catch up. That’s not unfair; that’s reality.

      • GeoJoe

        “The language requirement requires a certain amount of proficiency.”

        Completely false. What level of proficiency? If you start at L3, you need to go through L4. But if you start at L1, you only need to go to L3. Yale doesn’t require everyone to go to L5. I agree that the language requirement is confusing, but you should think more before you counter my extreme statements with your own blanket assertions, haha.

        • morse_14

          Perhaps this is only my experience, but L4 Spanish, L3 German, and L5 Latin didn’t vary very much in terms of proficiency. Everything after L3, at least in my experience, had to do with fine-tuning your skills.

  • lakia

    Learning a second language does far more for your brain than acquiring a second language. Yale has it exactly right. There are other institutions that do not have this requirement; perhaps one of them would better suit you?

    • GeoJoe

      “Learning a second language does far more for your brain than acquiring a second language.”

      I assumed this was a typo and was about to make a wise-ass remark, but is there some subtle distinction between learning and acquiring that I’m missing?

  • JE14

    I would say that the language requirement seems a bit stupid for people like myself who are multilingual (aka more than bilingual) they shouldn’t be required to take a language class if they can place into L5 in two different languages different from English.

    • penny_lane

      Just take one L5 language class and be done. Maybe it’s also a Hu credit for you, or can be used toward your major. Not a major hardship.

  • harvardsucks

    I completely agree. The language requirement sounds good in theory, but fails in practice.

    • Dedwards

      just like socialism

  • River_Tam

    I hated the language requirement. Hated hated hated.

    But I think it’s a good idea. It might even need to be expanded.

  • Stephanie_Nichole

    I understand your discontent with the language requirement. I am similarly burdened by that science requirement that many social sciences and humanities students find useless. But I don’t think that just because you find no value in a particular subject is a good enough reason to dismiss a requirement. Using the same arguments we could say that any of the requirements are not truly needed to succeed in the future.

    That aside, I think you give too little credit to the study of foreign languages. Studies have shown that the study of foreign languages increases academic success in other subjects, and benefits high order, abstract and creative thinking. And, although English might be the “official” language in more countries, there are actually more native speakers of Mandarin and Spanish than there are of English.

  • RexMottram08

    There should be a reversion to the original standard. Mandatory Latin and Greek.

  • Galavantian

    At least in this area, I think the fashionable practice of shoehorning “21st century learning” into classical curricula is positively damaging. The study of languages doesn’t need to be applicable in “an increasingly globalized society” (if I got a buck for every time I heard that phrase…). Rather, as other posters have said, learning a new language forces students to rewire the very process of thought, which is invaluable in broadening mental and cultural horizons – in being a scholar. Whether or not you believe in linguistic determinism, there is nothing you can read in translation that has not lost the essence of its original language.

    To me, at least, undergraduate study is not about “succeeding in the world” – it’s about learning how to learn. I can understand the objection that AP kids get an unfair leg up, and also that the requirement cuts down on the number of interesting electives one can take. However, I still believe, as has been the norm for hundreds of years, that the mastery of multiple languages is the mark of a truly educated person.

  • penny_lane

    If every op-ed writer who railed against this or that requirement had his way, Yale would have no requirements. Recent writers have done away with humanities, science, and now language. It’s starting to seem like Yalies just don’t want to challenge themselves, and are coming up with really creative reasons not to.

    Just take an ISA trip abroad summer after freshman year. Language requirement done, and you get to start sentences with, “The summer I lived in [awesome abroad location]…”

    • xfxjuice

      There is a difference between a challenge and a waste of time. If Yale makes it that easy to get the requirement, why have it at all? Yalies are a very motivated group of people. I like to think that given the option to study what they want, they would put forth more effort because they are generally interested in the subject matter, therefore yielding better results, as well as increasing the overall happiness of campus. However, if people are simply taking Czech or Spanish just to get the requirement out of the way (and they do), then it is no more than a waste of time for both the student and the teacher, since I am sure by L3, they will be able to say little more than “Hi, my name is _____. I am American. Where is the train station?”

      This does not only happen with language, but with science for humanities people, and humanities for science people. People look for guts because they want to spend as little time as possible on the crap they really don’t care about. Sure, some students might discover an interest in microbiology, but those students would most likely branch out simply due to their personality and/or their indifference to their current studies, in which case, requirements still don’t play any role.

      • penny_lane

        I took through L3 in Italian and I can hold conversation with Italians and read Calvino. Anyone who can’t just isn’t trying. You don’t learn any new material in L5 courses; it’s all just practice.

        Anyway, I chose Yale because it had some requirements but not strict requirements, and I liked it that way. If you want no requirements, you are free to go to Brown.

        • xfxjuice

          They aren’t trying because they don’t care! We all took our general education in high school. There really isn’t a point to making students doing something if they are just going to do it half-heartedly.

          Oh, and people choose to go to schools based on things other than academics. Even if Yale made me do P.E. like Columbia I STILL would have come, but that is not the point of this debate.

          • penny_lane

            “people choose to go to schools based on things other than academics”

            What a bizarre attitude. What did you come for, the words “Universitas Yalensis” on your degree? That’s not something to be proud of.

            Besides, academics absolutely is the point of the debate. The crux of the matter is what makes for the best possible undergraduate experience and the most solid undergraduate education.

    • River_Tam

      > . It’s starting to seem like Yalies just don’t want to challenge themselves, and are coming up with really creative reasons not to.

      What a notion.

  • sonofmory

    Go to Brown

  • yalie1420

    penny_lane, it’s not about not wanting to challenge ourselves. L1 and L2 classes are among the least challenging courses, intellectually, offered at Yale. Sure, it’s a lot of rote memorization, but there’s no real intellectual engagement like there is in higher-level L5 courses or non-language courses. Homework consists of worksheets and flashcards, not papers. A seventh-grader could perform in many of Yale’s L1 and L2 classes just as well as the Yale students do. There are obviously exceptions, but those exceptions (Latin, Greek, maybe Chinese) are not the courses that students take to fulfill their language requirements if they don’t want to learn a language.

    Not only that, but if you take only 3 semesters, you likely have not “mastered” another language, and therefore derive very few of the benefits that supposedly come from study of another language.

    The language requirement should either be abolished completely, or expanded — everyone must take up to L5. As it is, there are hundreds of students that end up stranded at the L3 level with a wasted 4.5 credits.

  • OOB

    You imply Dutch and Zulu are useless languages. You’re in Hebrew.

    This entire column is a joke.

    • River_Tam

      Are you implying that the author is a hypocrite for not ignoring the language requirement?

      I don’t think the author would suggest that knowledge of Hebrew is “increasingly important” to succeed.

      • OOB

        As he later proposed a short list of languages he considered useful, I assume he would consider Hebrew as part of that list. While the article is him bemoaning the fact that he is required to take a foreign language, the fact that he’s belittling other languages at least implies that he is sure in his own decision to take Hebrew.

        • Gavin_Schiffres

          My policy is to not respond to rebuttals or criticisms of my points in the comment thread (though some of the above seem to be crying out for obvious counters). I’m going to make an exception here, though, both to explain myself personally and clarify a point in my article.

          I don’t believe Dutch and Zulu are “useless” languages insofar as languages are usually evaluated: access to texts, lyricism of thought, or any other non-communicative value. As far as a tool for communicating — the reason administrators claim foreign language is “increasingly important in an increasingly globalized world” — Zulu and Dutch are, relative to English, rather useless (for the sole fact that one can communicate with relatively few people in them). Hebrew is as well. I chose to study Hebrew because, as a Jew who will likely be in services the rest of his life, it will have more use for me than most other languages (a use Yale can’t, and shouldn’t, bet all students will have). I studied Spanish in high school and was planning on learning Chinese here, but Chinese is known to be a larger time commitment here than many other languages and, as you might have guessed, foreign-language study is not my favorite. I didn’t want it to be the focus of my first year and a half at Yale.

          If I could choose again, I probably would have studied Latin. Friends of mine who have claim it has directly benefited their English skills — something that will be imminently useful to me. Again, this is not to “belittle” non-English languages. Just to say that if Yale is going to mandate learning a skill (which L1 – L3 really is) rather than a new “way to interpret the world” — as traditional liberal-arts requirements are intended to do — they should make sure that skill will necessarily benefit all students more than anything else they could have possibly learned in that time. Any student can elect to study language, but if at least one says “studying a foreign language is an inefficient use of my time at Yale,” then the mandate should be scrapped. With this op-ed, I’m saying that.

        • penny_lane

          Some languages have deep personal importance. I knew some Christians who took ancient Greek to better understand the Bible. As Mr. Schiffres points out below, his language choice also has religious significance.

          For others, taking a certain language might allow them to reconnect with their family or heritage. My first-generation American roommate learned Chinese in college because she wanted to form a deeper connection with her parents and their culture. My cousin learned Sicilian because his grandparents only speak Sicilian.

          People sometimes make choices that are meaningful though not purely utilitarian. It’s one of the most beautiful and dangerous things about us.

    • Gavin_Schiffres

      My policy is to not respond to rebuttals or criticisms of my points in the comment thread (though some of the above seem to be crying out for obvious counters). I’m going to make an exception here, though, both to explain myself personally and clarify a point in my article.

      I don’t believe Dutch and Zulu are “useless” languages insofar as languages are usually evaluated: access to texts, lyricism of thought, or any other non-communicative value. As far as a tool for communicating — the reason administrators claim foreign language is “increasingly important in an increasingly globalized world” — Zulu and Dutch are, relative to English, rather useless (for the sole fact that one can communicate with relatively few people in them). Hebrew is as well. I chose to study Hebrew because, as a Jew who will likely be in services the rest of his life, it will have more use for me than most other languages (a use Yale can’t, and shouldn’t, bet all students will have). I studied Spanish in high school and was planning on learning Chinese here, but Chinese is known to be a larger time commitment here than many other languages and, as you might have guessed, foreign-language study is not my favorite. I didn’t want it to be the focus of my first year and a half at Yale.

      If I could choose again, I probably would have studied Latin. Friends of mine who have claim it has directly benefited their English skills — something that will be imminently useful to me. Again, this is not to “belittle” non-English languages. Just to say that if Yale is going to mandate learning a skill (which L1 – L3 really is) rather than a new “way to interpret the world” — as traditional liberal-arts requirements are intended to do — they should make sure that skill will necessarily benefit all students more than anything else they could have possibly learned in that time. Any student can elect to study language, but if at least one says “studying a foreign language is an inefficient use of my time at Yale,” then the mandate should be scrapped. With this op-ed, I’m saying that.

  • ldffly

    The Latin-Greek-Hebrew triad could be a great tool for expanding the capacities needed to understand unfamiliar cultures. A great thing for those who might engage in various types of international business or government work. The Oxbridge universities held on to their classics based curriculum for a long time precisely for that reason. The British Empire needed those with habits of mind that facilitated understanding of unfamiliar cultures. Training in the three classical languages facilitated that intellectual capacity.

    The USA is also losing touch with the ancient roots of its government due to loss of familiarity with the languages of those ancient texts. Yet what can we do? As much as I benefited from college Latin, I’m realistic. Students come to college with no training in those languages. They would have to spend huge amounts of time on the languages themselves at great cost to study of other essential matters. While I do not agree that the language requirement should wither away, I would say three terms is sufficient as a requirement. At least that would give all students some grounding in how to learn a language, something which they could continue to do after college, as so many do these days.

  • silliwin01

    Taking Czech or Indonesian to kill the language requirement without learning anything is no different than taking Sports, Society and Culture, and the CPSC class with two 300 word essays to get writing credits. The ease of fulfilling distribution requirements without satisfying the spirit of said requirements is hardly a compelling argument for eliminating them.

  • yalengineer

    I would ask for ending the language requirement for engineering students as it is frequently done at other universities for instance UPenn. The 3 units for a morning class extremely limits the already restrictive flexibility that engineering majors have along with their 18 units required for graduation and ~6 prerequisites units.

    While mastery of a foreign language is incredibly valuable for a global profession like engineering, it may not be feasible within the 36 unit confines of the Yale University education.

    For the record, I got around this issue with AP-Latin credits and taking 28 QR/SC units.

    • penny_lane

      People don’t seem to realize that 36 credits is the minimum. You’re certainly allowed to take more if you want! Most people do, don’t they?

  • silliwin01

    Remember that they invented Cr/D/F so you tack on a fifth or sixth class in something that interests you.

  • Jess

    מה אתה אומר, גאווין? שאתה לא אוהב ללמוד עברית? כמה עצוב!

    • Gavin_Schiffres

      אני אהב, ואוהב, הכיתה עברית שלי! אבל כמה אנשים לא רוצים או צריכים ללמוד שפה.

  • purple

    This article is completely backwards. If anything, learning a foreign language is *more* important than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Just because Americans have gotten away with atrocious foreign language preparation in past decades doesn’t mean it’s a strategy that will serve us well in future decades. Yale has one of the more stringent language requirements that I know of, but this seems to be more of a progressive approach than an outdated one to me. I commend the requirement.

    Also, the fact that people are simultaneously arguing that the language policy is unfair to people with little foreign language preparation (because they have to take more courses) and that it’s unfair to people with more foreign language preparation (because they have to take language classes at all, and achieve a higher level) suggests that Yale has actually done a reasonable job finding some sort of middle-ground.

  • Athanasius

    Boo hoo.

    Yale is one of its few peer institutions that has a language requirement that is this stringent. (I.e., extremely lax by international standards, although I grant that engineering students might merit exception.) Talk to the CIPE administration if you’re curious about the result and want to do more about this issue than simply write an op-ed: they’ll tell that much more Yalies have a deep and concerted engagement with foreign cultures and languages than their peers at other schools. This is a good thing.

    You say that you are sacrificing other “intellectual gems.” Or, as per the comments, that L1 and L2 classes are rote memorization. I won’t give you the obvious retort, which you clumsily attempt to rebut in your second-to-last paragraph. Rather, I would point to the large body of research that suggests that learning another language is some of the best holistic training your brain can get.

    Or perhaps less instrumentally, think of it this way, because you will find this true as soon as you meet someone who speaks less English than you. (Incidentally, do you have international friends here? I think they would take issue with your assumptions about English, and learning in it.) Simply put, language is one of the very few skills in which “mastery” is not necessary. It is that rare skill where any knowledge, no matter how small, is of use and of benefit. Stop looking at learning in terms of goals, or benchmarks, or achievements. Ten years past graduation, you won’t remember that English class you took, or “the secrets of the brain,” or “Greek mythology.” However, years down the line, when you meet a foreigner, and can make the effort to talk to them, even a tiny bit, in their native tongue, you will learn firsthand the centrality of language to the human experience.

    If you want to spend your time otherwise, you (apparently) are a “customer.” Take your patronage elsewhere. But you also are a freshman, and you underestimate the immense growth opportunities that hundreds of your class will experience through study abroad and language learning. Go expand your horizons: many of your classmates will in fact continue with languages, and find great meaning and value in them. So you aren’t one of them. I say: your loss.

    • penny_lane

      >more Yalies have a deep and concerted engagement with foreign cultures and languages than their peers at other schools

      This. As an institution, knowing that its students will be among the future leaders of the world, Yale has an interest in preparing them as best it can. The above statement represents an important element of that preparation that is invaluable and should be celebrated.

  • Sam

    My usual impulse is to support requirements. The writing, QR, and possibly SC credits need to be made much more rigorous. As it stands you can get through Yale without really doing much in any of them. I’d rather that Yale made a freshman writing seminar mandatory, like
    Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford have.

    I feel differently about the language requirement. I came into Yale with a 5 on AP French so I skipped straight to L5. During the second semester of my sophomore year, I took L5 French and various upper level history seminars and math classes. I remember comparing my sophomore year to high school. The history and math classes were so much more interesting than anything I had done in high school. The level of sophistication and subtlety was far beyond anything I had seen in AP Euro or Calculus. On the other hand, L5 french mostly consisted of the same damn grammar exercises that I had done senior year and forgotten in the meantime. It was a waste of a credit.

    • penny_lane

      I made the same mistake with Advanced Conversational Spanish. The course should be considered a booster for people who have trouble learning languages, not a platform for people who actually want to speak Spanish better. As a freshman I didn’t know that. Not even the number of football players tipped me off. I really should have taken a literature course instead.

      But, I consider that my own folly, not a sign that we should do away with the language requirement.

    • 81

      My language class sucked/was a waste of time *is not* an argument to get rid of the requirement. Everyone’s had bad experiences with all kinds of classes. If you want to fulfill the requirement in the most enriching way possible, the onus is on you to find the classes/put in the work.

      • 81

        (that was a response to Sam, btw… basically just rehashed penny_lane’s point)

  • basho

    Perhaps it would be best if the language requirement were integrated with the (non-language) major so that it becomes “useful” and gets our collective panties out of a wad.

    For example, an American Studies major would have to learn a second language pertinent to the American experience (Spanish? Some sort of Native Tongue?), while a physics/chemistry/math/etc. major would learn a language of scientific literature (German, Russian, French). The econ people would learn the language of our eventual Chinese overlords (Chinese).

    Just some thoughts as I finish a particularly fat J.

    - Basho! Banana Tree

  • GlobalArts

    So under this logic, humanities majors shouldn’t have to take QR, because it’s unlikely they will use physics or econ or math. Generally, people who complain about languages aren’t good at them, just like people who complain about math requirements aren’t good at math. Make the most of it, appreciate the opportunity, it’s sad you can’t find any benefit in any language other than English.

    • River_Tam

      > So under this logic, humanities majors shouldn’t have to take QR, because it’s unlikely they will use physics or econ or math.

      How else will they count out their food stamps when they’re doing Americorps?

  • Pingback: Jeanette1013 | Pearltrees

  • Pingback: Ka_bangg | Pearltrees

  • Pingback: M@ (blacktaco) | Pearltrees