The language of success

The university’s second-language requirement should be extended to include all students.

The language of success

Brian Reinken

The University of Minnesota’s second-language requirement is elegant in its simplicity. Before graduation, students enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts must either complete four semesters of a second language or pass the language proficiency exam. This sounds like a sensible system, but how does it compare to the second language requirements of other American universities?

To answer this question in brief I examined a handful of schools from across the country. Any statistician would probably skewer the size of my data pool, but it was kept small for the sake of brevity.

All the private universities I examined, as well as the University of California-Los Angeles, require all their students to have studied a second language before graduation. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a more expansive requirement than its foil in Minnesota.

The University’s language requirement, while not the flimsiest in the group, fails to stand out from its peers.

Here in Minnesota, CLA students are encouraged to study a second language because of the professional and personal fulfillment that doing so will grant them. Some of these students — political science or linguistics majors, for example —obviously benefit from proficiency in another language. But students majoring in, say, English or religious studies  don’t benefit as much from a second language.

For these students, a new language serves a humanistic purpose, and it opens up a world of foreign literature. Still, a day job in these fields probably won’t require much conversation with foreigners.

Compare this to the reality faced by the scientists, engineers and businesspeople outside of CLA. With the increasing industrialization of the world comes the increasing internationalization of science and trade. It’s more important now than ever for people outside of the humanities to learn a second language.

Carlson School of Management students are required to have international experience before they graduate, typically through studying abroad. With the exception of international business students, they are not expected to complete any study of a foreign language.

Of course, learning abroad is a bit facile when you don’t speak the host country’s native language. And while it’s true that you could do business in Australia or the United Kingdom, there are equally auspicious financial opportunities in Germany, Singapore and Japan.

Many of the finer points of business depend upon being able to connect with clients and coworkers. Is it worth the professional risk to only understand one language?

In the U.S., a country in which English isn’t meaningfully threatened by another language, it can be easy to forget that the world does not cater to American English. English is spoken internationally, and it’s easy enough to survive without speaking anything else. Native Anglophones, however, shouldn’t mistake English’s prevalence for its superiority.

The University doesn’t require all of its students to be proficient in a second language. It should. Those outside of CLA must realize that their careers may someday rest on their ability to speak another language. These students may protest a change in the language requirement, arguing that they’re already drowning in a major whose credit load vastly outweighs that of the common CLA major. Necessity, however, rarely confines itself to a convenient time frame. The benefits of a second language are more than worth the amount of time required to learn how to speak it.

There will be those who denounce the proposal for a universal language requirement as platitudinous and idealistic. But the world is shrinking, and even if the University of Minnesota doesn’t enforce bilingualism, there are plenty of schools that do. Many of these — Harvard, Yale, UCLA, etc. — are considered to be the best universities in the country. And it’s their students against whom University graduates will someday need to compete for jobs.