During my first years at Yale as a classics major, classical language courses consistently outbid modern languages for space in my schedule. Semester after semester, I labored to acquire Ancient Greek and Latin while somehow retaining enough Mandarin to avoid sounding idiotic on the phone with my relatives. Under these circumstances, taking a third language class was impossible.
But incredibly, I was given the unexpected opportunity to learn Italian this summer, right before my final year of college, through a Yale Summer Session study abroad program in Siena.
Those brief five weeks I spent immersed in the vibrant local culture and expressive flow of colloquial Italian offered the best way imaginable to learn the language in a homestay environment.
My understanding of Italian came from the education I received at home as much as it did from the classroom, nurtured by the patient enthusiasm of my host parents and siblings. Every night over dinner, we would sit at the table and converse in Italian for three hours, learning about each other’s families and experiences, discussing differences between our respective countries.
Contemplating love and relationships with my host mother, sharing thoughts with my host father on the painful death of close relatives — these precious and insightful moments helped me discover myself within the language. I came to appreciate the struggle to interpret natural sentiments and familiar memories in a strange tongue and to hear the words of others as they intended them.
At the same time, this experience drew my attention to a sharp discrepancy in attitudes toward foreign language studies between America and other countries. Most European students learn English and often a third language in elementary school, as do Asian schoolchildren. In Italy, waiters rush to finish your sentence in English before you’ve had the chance to think of the right conjugation. Throughout Europe, subway stations and menus are subtitled in English to accommodate American convenience — or ignorance.
The characteristic solipsism of which Americans are accused manifests itself in the nation’s hesitation to understand other cultures in their own terms. Like the course I took this summer, and other Yale study abroad programs, many American foreign language courses do not enforce full immersion, undermining the objective of understanding other cultures in countries already readymade for English tourism. The strong temptation to spend most of one’s time with English-speaking peers or to rely on native foreign language speakers to know English thwarts language acquisition.
Unfortunately, disinterest in foreign languages is apparent earlier on. The perception of language skills as “niche” and expendable results in their absence from school curricula; when school boards have to cut spending, language programs are usually the first to go. Recent MLA statistics report a steady nationwide decline in foreign language enrollment, a pattern mirrored at Yale as noted in 2015 (“MLA examines foreign language enrollment,” Feb. 19, 2015). Though the article adds the caveat that Yale’s language enrollment statistics do not fully corroborate wider trends, this phenomenon should nevertheless disturb us, given Yale’s excellent language faculty and commitment to the liberal arts.
American ambivalence toward foreign languages is both egregious and embarrassing. Yale’s requirement that all students enroll in at least one foreign language class on campus — regardless of previous experience — is one step toward rectifying this issue, but the University can do better. Rather than being concerned about falling behind other countries in a “technology race,” Yale and other American universities — such as Harvard, which permits its students to satisfy the foreign language requirement before entering college — ought to redirect some of that paranoia toward the study of foreign languages, where we are falling behind the rest of the world.
While meeting with Yale students in Siena this summer, Kelly McLaughlin, the director of the study abroad program at Yale, mentioned that he had previously received complaints about Yale’s “draconian language policies.” To the contrary, these language policies can and should be even more rigorous, to reflect the necessity of learning a modern language in today’s world and connecting with a global community, particularly its non-Western regions.
All of Yale’s study abroad language programs might consider adopting the model of the Light Fellowship program, which enforces acquisition of East Asian languages through a language pledge which bans speaking English and assigns roommates who help reinforce it.
On campus, Yale should assign even more priority to foreign language education and work to achieve better accessibility. Inflexible restrictions on the scheduling and availability of language courses discourage otherwise interested students. The commitment and dedication essential to learning a new language should of course never be understated, but neither should the notion that it is too trivial be propagated.
Empathy, commitment and an appreciation of human diversity — these are the rewards of a successful language program. Given that the rest of the world has realized this, it’s time we stop talking past them.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .