All prestigious universities in my home country, the Czech Republic, demand that students study two or more foreign languages. A foreign language requirement is the norm in Europe. Not so in the United States. Only 12.7% of American colleges and universities require intermediate-level foreign language study. According to the Atlantic, only 7% percent of college students were actually enrolled in a foreign language course in 2013. Many U.S. college students might feel they do not need to take a foreign language course, because English is the most commonly studied language in the world. But they could not be more wrong, for three chief reasons.
First, foreign language study is a key part of a well-rounded, rigorous liberal arts education. Colleges and universities should not offer theory alone. After all, core curricula ought to produce “graduates who think critically, live faithfully, and impact effectively their sphere of influence.” So says the newest catalog of Colorado Christian University, one of the few schools to earn an ACTA “A” rating. To meet this standard, a foreign language requirement is needed. Learning a language requires students to analyze structures, acquire new skills, and hone critical thinking capacities. With these augmented abilities, they can be more influential as human beings because they will understand others better. For U.S. students to be prepared for the world at large, mere major-oriented courses and a smorgasbord of electives do not suffice. There is no substitute for dedicated foreign language study.
Second, colleges and universities’ emphases on multiculturalism are hollow without the substantive coursework of foreign language study. The population of the United States continues to diversify. The Hispanic population is estimated to double by 2050 and the total number of Asians is also increasing. Increasingly, foreign students are coming to the U.S. to learn. In this age of globalization, colleges and universities claim a commitment to diversity and cultural pluralism. Fulfilling that commitment requires students to study foreign language. Students with a foreign language competency will be able to better understand people of divergent backgrounds, and they will be able to approach complex issues from different perspectives. As Saint Mary’s College of California explains, studying foreign languages helps us “recognize the universal aspects of the human condition and embrace the diverse backgrounds of people at home and around the world.”
Third, today’s job market is more competitive than ever, and students with foreign language competencies are more likely to succeed. College students pay a lot for their studies and expect real returns, as do employers. Many potential employers will want to know if graduates can bring something unique to the table. International companies look for those who are proficient in the languages of their markets. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that almost 50% of all examined world companies wanted prospective candidates to be fluent in a foreign language. From PR firms to embassies, from hospitals or hotels to the journalism industry, many jobs are easier for the multilingual to land and to subsequently excel in.
Clearly, a foreign language requirement is important. Students would benefit enormously if more colleges and universities in the U.S. included such a requirement in their core curricula. The sooner it happens, the better.
Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the fourth in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Pavel is a second-year master's-level student at Charles University in the Czech Republic, studying world history and American studies.
Washington Post, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel
Wall Street Journal, Melissa Korn
POLITICO, Michael Stratford
Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer
Hechinger Report, Donald Farish
NewYork Times, Bret Stephens