Every student who enters Yale must take three semesters of language.
Well, unless you place into L4, in which case you only need to take two. As long as it’s still in that language of course. If you place into L5 you only need take one term in that language. Or you can meet the requirement by reaching L2 in another language. Or if you take an intensive L1/L2 course, you can finish in two semesters, or … never mind, you get the point. Yale has a language requirement. It’s confusing.
But with the number of different ways this requirement shows up for different students, I think it is worth asking why we have it. What could all of these different paths achieve in common? According to the Center for Language Studies website, “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.” This is certainly a commendable set of goals. Teaching students a foreign language and showing them different cultures are both worthwhile objectives for a university to pursue. The problem is that I don’t think the current requirements achieve either.
First, let’s look at learning about foreign cultures. It’s probably the more practical and achievable of the two goals. Taking a second language exposes us to other cultures, but it does so in an oblique and unfocused way. Language courses, first and foremost, teach language. That’s fine and it’s probably how it should be. But this means we only learn bits and pieces of culture and differences in ideals and values in passing and only insofar as the cultural tidbit can help us learn a certain tense.
After a semester in an L1 course, you might learn a week or two’s worth of concrete material about a foreign people. We could learn much more about these other cultures through classes in English and we would, consequently, be able to tackle more complex cultural issues. Cultural differences are nuanced, and it’s challenging enough to discuss them sensitively without being hamstrung by a language barrier.
This leaves the second reason Yale gives for the requirement: to learn a foreign language. My biggest issue here is that it is something that simply cannot be forced. Three semesters is not enough to force students to be fluent in a foreign language, especially those who are starting from scratch. In Psych 110, language and linguistics have come up on numerous occasions. Both professor Marvin Chun and professor Paul Bloom have emphasized to the class how extraordinarily difficult it is to learn a language if you have not started by the time you are 17, and you’re not bilingual in another language already (I believe the term Bloom used was “a herculean task”). By forcing students into these courses, the University is making them learn something almost impossibly difficult for many and that fades away incredibly quickly once they stop learning it.
What is arguably the worst part is that this also hurts the students who are most motivated to learn a new language. Language classes are uniquely dependent on an enormous amount of student participation so you can actually listen to and use the vocabulary and structure that you are learning in a realistic environment. The difference between a class in which half the students are there because they are being forced, and a class in which every student is speaking as much as they can is huge.
Finally, the idea that “knowledge of more than one language … is becoming increasingly important” is frankly wrong. As technology is advancing and communication around the world is exploding, it is in fact becoming less necessary to know another language. Particularly when we already speak English, the most common language of business, politics and culture around the world.
Now please don’t mistake this for me arguing that learning other languages is no longer needed. It absolutely is incredibly useful; I truly wish I had more of a talent for it. But I also think that Yale could much more efficiently achieve the goal of broadening students’ cultural horizons as well as providing those interested with better language classes, by simply expanding the requirement to allow courses about other peoples and their cultures to substitute for language classes.
Michael Sullivan is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.