When Americans learn that I speak several languages fluently, the reaction is typically one of utter surprise. On the other hand, Europeans are generally nonplussed by this discovery. I myself feel that my foreign language ability, while not subpar, is in constant need of improvement. Communication is the bedrock of human society, and especially in today’s world, cultural understanding should be a top priority. Foreign languages are the point of access to other cultures, which, as the U.S. government might do well to remember, is the real key to success in the international political arena. It is for this reason that I was aghast at the Committee on Yale College Education’s decision to propose a reduction in the Yale foreign language requirement for students entering with no language proficiency, and the vote by the faculty to approve the recommendation for implementation. Perhaps most disheartening, however, is that while the decision to reduce the foreign language requirement is disappointing, it is not at all surprising.
In my American high school, foreign language instruction was better than average, but the upper-level courses remained the realm of students heading to prestigious universities. Students studied one foreign language if absolutely necessary, and opted out in favor of study hall as soon as possible. When I proposed taking both German and Spanish — apparently an unprecedented suggestion — my guidance counselor’s computer went into conniptions. In my high school in France, conversely, all students studied two, if not three, foreign languages. This certainly did not detract from the quality of instruction in other areas. I have studied a foreign language fairly consistently during my time at Yale, and doing so has not prevented me from taking a wide range of courses in many departments. The languages I have studied at Yale (Russian and Arabic), moreover, are often classified as difficult. Too many people fall back on the excuse that studying a foreign language is inherently difficult for them. But in fact, what could be more basic than studying language? We all learned one at some point in our lives, and while the process does scientifically get more difficult as we age, I simply cannot accept that certain people are unable to learn languages.
Frankly, four semesters of language instruction — as I’m sure most Yalies would agree — is rarely enough to gain any true proficiency. Whether reduction by one semester in the total requirement would make a considerable difference in the level of proficiency of the average Yale student is debatable. But the truth is that the requirement should not have decreased, but increased substantially. I do not see why two foreign languages should not be required, and why the requirement per language should not be extended to four years, not four semesters. In a perfect world, students — and especially students headed for leadership positions in government, business and all other segments of American professional society — would not need a requirement to search out as many foreign language courses as possible. But American students’ failure to recognize the value of foreign language education is not unexpected. While other skills learned at Yale are important, I would argue that language ability should be a top — if not the top — priority. And indeed, given that there is a foreign language requirement here (whereas there is no math requirement or political science requirement) someone in Yale’s past agreed with me.
Foreign language acquisition is not a game. Would students feel it appropriate to base an introductory calculus course on a video series? Would students find it useful to sing songs about constitutional law? Frankly, the commercialization of education (that is, the notion that students must be sold on learning) in general in the United States is absurd, but nowhere is this truer than in language education. Language instructors across the country, for instance, have jumped on the chance to teach via Total Physical Response a silly pedagogical tool in which students are encouraged to respond to vocabulary words with various gestures. Should language courses some day be taught as they are in Europe — with a real emphasis on grammar, for instance — perhaps Yale’s foreign language requirement would be enough to allow students a reasonable degree of proficiency. But the way in which Americans approach foreign language education is a reflection of the importance they place on foreign languages and an insult to the international community.
The effects of a reduced foreign language requirement will have an impact far beyond Yale. For an elite, prominent university like Yale to decrease its foreign language requirement at such a time in international history is irresponsible and a disgrace. Americans, as we all know, are already seen as conceited for having such paltry foreign language proficiency. Whether or not the three-semester system truly affects how much students have learned by the time they graduate — and the experts (i.e. foreign language instructors) feel that it will — the statement that Yale is making by reducing the requirement is clear. Apparently, in a globalized international environment, where hostilities vis-a-vis the United States grow by the minute, cultural understanding is no longer a top priority of our University.
Jessamyn Blau is a junior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays