In today’s rapidly globalizing society, it seems just about everyone can agree that learning a second language is essential. It gives you an upper hand in the job market, business, politics and just about everywhere else. Beyond its real-world utility, learning a second language opens your mind in a way that other studies don’t. It exposes you to different cultures and ways of living.
For that reason, Yale requires its students to study a foreign language before graduating, as one of its foundational distributional requirements. The Yale Center for Language Study writes, “As knowledge of more than one language and familiarity with more than one culture is becoming increasingly important, the distributional requirements include foreign language study.”
In line with this requirement, most students will need to complete at least three semesters of language classes. And I completely agree with this policy — learning a foreign language is one of the most practical skills you can have and opens up doors that otherwise would remain closed. As practical as learning Kant is in the real world, you might actually use your foreign language outside of Yale. It’s a good thing that we promote this, even if it is in the form of a mandated requirement.
But then the question remains — what happens after those three semesters? Well, for many, the road ends there. Because, as one of my friends bluntly put, “No second semester sophomore ever takes Friday classes.” The vast majority of L4 language classes meet five days a week.
Yalies are some of the most motivated, driven people who I’ve ever met. From researching cancer treatments to staying up all night to finish a paper, we don’t flinch in the face of work. But at the end of the day, we’re still human beings, not machines. And speaking from experience, as much as I love the idea of a class, if I have the option to not take it on a Friday, I go for it.
That’s not to say that we’re inherently lazy — it’s just that if we’re faced with two options, class on Friday or no class on Friday, most of us choose the latter. So when it comes to choosing classes, L4 languages are the first things to go for many people. If we don’t absolutely love the language or if they can find another class that doesn’t meet on Fridays that we like just as much, we try to get the same bang for less buck.
Still, I think that we should try to maintain our language education. Second languages have notoriously steep forgetting curves, with a huge drop in knowledge occurring within the first few years of not practicing. It doesn’t take an expert to realize this (although experts do agree) — my Italian after summer break can testify to it.
So if you stop after only three semesters of a language, by the time job or internship hunting comes around — even if that’s just a semester or year away — your learned language will be fairly useless. As such, the doors that the second language initially opened, such as potential internships in a foreign country, will have already begun to close.
So what are we to do? Continuing the education of a second language beyond three semesters seems important. But to state the reality of the situation, no one wants classes on Fridays.
We should hold all L4 language classes on a Monday through Thursday schedule, instead of on the Monday through Friday schedule that most L4 languages have now. Losing one day wouldn’t necessarily mean lessening the rigor of the class. We could even add on a little extra time each day.
Students at other schools with less frequent language classes seem to be doing just as fine. Harvard’s fourth semester French meets twice a week for 90 minutes, plus a section. As much as I’d like to say that Harvard students aren’t learning good French, they probably are.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should change academic schedules whenever students are lazy. But given how important we consider language study to be — we give it its own distributional requirement alongside quantitative reasoning and writing — we should make the option of continuing a second language more accessible. By eliminating Friday L4 language classes, we would give upper-level language courses a fighting chance of retaining students beyond the distributional requirement.
Leo Kim is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.