The Forum | General Education

The Defense of Foreign Language Requirements

October 31, 2018

American colleges and universities play a significant role in creating global citizens. One of best ways for students to engage as global citizens is to learn a foreign language. This month, faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University decided to keep the institution’s three-course foreign language requirement following a proposal to reduce the requirement to two courses. “It just seemed crazy to a lot of us, at a world-class university that claims to be forming global citizens. You can’t be a global citizen if you’re monolingual,” Mitchell Greenberg, chair of romance languages, said of the two-course proposal. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) applauds the Cornell faculty for its commitment to rigorous foreign language study.

Cornell requires all students, prior to graduation, to complete an intermediate or above language course or complete at least 11 credits in a single foreign language. The requirement states, “Studying a language other than one’s own helps students understand the dynamics of language, our fundamental intellectual tool, and enables students to understand another culture.” In addition to their foreign language requirement, Cornell also has a cultural analysis distribution requirement, for which students study cultural art, politics, literature, and science.

Among other institutions prioritizing foreign language study are Princeton University, Pepperdine University, and Christopher Newport University. Princeton University offers over 15 languages for students to study, and proficiency is granted after three or four semesters. Pepperdine University states, “The [language] requirement helps students attain a functional competency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing at the intermediate level in a language of their choice. The equivalent of third semester language is required.” At Christopher Newport University, a prominent public university in Virginia, “All students must successfully complete a 200-level language course or higher in a second language, or the equivalent, in order to graduate.”

But the majority of higher education institutions do not require the study of a foreign language. The 2018–19 edition of ACTA’s signature What Will They Learn? report—a comprehensive collection of the core curricula at over 1,100 American colleges and universities—shows that only 12% require intermediate-level foreign language study. It is frightening to see how many institutions fail to recognize the high demand for multilingual skills. There are over a dozen “critical need” languages listed by the federal government as vital to United States national security, including Japanese, Chinese, and Russian.

America is also in dire need of multilingual citizens in order to maintain its competitive edge in an increasingly global economy.

America is also in dire need of multilingual citizens in order to maintain its competitive edge in an increasingly global economy. A survey of 419 U.S. employers by the University of Phoenix Research Institute found that 70% expect Spanish language skills to be in high demand over the next decade and 42% cited Chinese. Multilingual skills are a worthy investment for students to make. Global corporations admire candidates who will immerse themselves in foreign cultures and diverse populations.

America’s colleges and universities, while stressing the critical role of social inclusion and diversity, have greatly dispensed of the most crucial component to understanding another culture; its language. Numerous colleges and universities offer optional foreign language courses or the study of foreign cultures as poor alternatives to learning a language. At The George Washington University, for example, the “Critical or Creative Analysis in the Humanities” requirement can be met by one course in either history, literature, philosophy, religion, or elementary-level foreign language. Optional and elementary-level foreign language study are not sufficient enough to ensure proficiency. Proficiency requires rigorous and consistent study.

Cornell represents an institution fully committed to creating global citizens. It provides a rigorous foreign language requirement for all students as well as a cultural analysis requirement. A majority of colleges and universities already have either an elementary foreign language requirement or a requirement on foreign cultures. These institutions should model their preexisting requirements after Cornell to ensure their students gain a truly diverse and complete education that will prepare them to make meaningful contributions to society and the world.

Nathaniel Urban is ACTA’s Program Officer for Curricular Improvement


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