I sat hunched over a Willoughby’s cappuccino in the spring of my first year, laughing with a group of friends. Our textbooks sat open in front of us, forgotten. Two friends exchanged a joke in Mandarin. I laughed, awkwardly. But before I could overcome my fear of missing out, one of my friends asked me, seriously, “Aren’t you jealous you can’t speak another language?” I stuttered as I said yes, my cheeks reddening.
When thinking about this moment, I oscillate between embarrassment and outrage. But I remind myself that the student mocking me had access to an elite private school education that I could have only dreamed of. On the contrary, no matter how hard I tried to get access to language classes in middle school, my school district made it impossible. At one point, I was offered the opportunity to take Latin and Ancient Greek online, but it was later revoked. I never learned grammar, even in English.
When I came to Yale, I hoped that I had moved beyond these shortcomings. But I have become ever more aware of the gaps in my education. This awareness is not just a function of my friends’ coffee shop elitism; it’s programmed into the foreign language requirement itself.
The requirement for language, without a doubt, is Yale College’s most complex. It stipulates standards for students from a wide range of backgrounds coming into Yale, essentially offering three options: (a) students who have never taken a language before must complete three courses in a language of their choice; (b) students who received top scores on an AP or IB language examination must complete either one course in that language or two courses in another language; or (c) students with some language proficiency but without the appropriate AP scores may take one, two or three courses based on placement examination results. In other words, if a student has no experience in foreign languages, they must devote 4.5 credits of a 36 credit degree to completing that requirement alone. But students who are fluent in another language may need only one credit to complete the same requirement.
The fact that these requirements are so complex illustrates that Yale is aware of precisely what makes the language requirement classist and divisive. Many students come to Yale with limited foreign language proficiency. Those students are often on financial aid. They often attended public high schools. They are often like me.
Yes, language study is important. Wealthy high schools teach languages specifically because they allow students the opportunity to interact with other cultures — a necessary aspect of a pluralist society. However, stipulating that students without access to these resources must accommodate for their class background in rigorous language courses, while wealthy students who have been studying Latin since elementary school may bypass those requirements, serves the narrative that low-income students do not belong at Yale.
You might be wondering, how is this different from, say, math? The Department of Mathematics also has a placement examination. They also ask about AP or IB credits. Does this merit a piece about that department’s placement process? Alas, no. The quantitative reasoning distributional requirement stipulates two quantitative reasoning courses for all students, regardless of background or ability. It may also be satisfied using several different fields of study.
Additionally, understanding why language and quantitative requirements are different necessitates an understanding of the priorities of underfunded schools. Public schools, especially in low-income districts, dedicate their resources primarily to tested subjects: usually English and math. Other subjects like art, music, foreign languages and electives are often underfunded or don’t exist at all. This means that low-income students and students from underfunded schools might come to Yale excelling in math and English but without experience studying foreign languages. This is not always true, but the proportion of low-income students with a background in Calculus or Literature is much higher than those with a proficiency in Latin or Mandarin.
Of course, not every multilingual Yale student knows a second language because of their high school or socioeconomic status. Not everyone looks like the man who ridiculed me over cappuccinos. Many Yalies are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves; they had good Spanish instructors or grew up speaking multiple languages at home. Thus, knowing a second language isn’t an immediate sign of wealth. Still, not knowing one feels like a deficiency.
Yale’s language requirements reinforce this sense of alienation. The tiered system, which assumes access to AP and IB credits and high school language proficiency, specifically forces students without previous language study to take more language courses than their classmates.
What Yale needs is a system of structuring language study that does not focus merely on results. It’s not as if there are equal results, anyways; someone who has completed 1.5 semesters of a language simply cannot possess mastery of that language equal to someone who has studied it since kindergarten. Yale should, as it does with quantitative skills, design the foreign language requirement to meet students where they are, without de facto discrimination based on socioeconomic status. This would include requiring all students, regardless of background, to take the same number of language classes to fulfill the distributional requirement. Yale could also provide other opportunities to gain basic language proficiency that do not require students to use credits, which would provide the necessary skills to test into higher-level language courses.
Every student has at least one distributional requirement they find frustrating. But Yale should let those requirements reflect our preferences, not our inequities. Let them reflect places for growth instead of places for shame.
Mckinsey Crozier is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .