The CLA foreign language requirement has been a subject of debate for quite some time. There are some people who argue that the 3O quarter credits in foreign languages required by CLA is not enough, that the students should be required to take more classes in whatever foreign language they have chosen. Other people say that those requirements should be abolished altogether. They say: Who needs foreign languages when simultaneous translations can be made by a computer? In addition, doesn’t the rest of the world speak English?
Still others, myself included, argue that there are many reasons why CLA should keep the foreign language requirement as it is, a sequence of six five-credit courses that provide the student with a basic knowledge of a very difficult skill, how to speak and write another language.
The current sequence of six courses gives the student a basic background. A student who has earned 3O credits in a foreign language will not forget the material. Even if the student does not use the language for some time, he or she will be able to remember the foreign language quite quickly by taking a refresher course or reviewing the old books and tapes. Somewhere hidden in the brain are the circuits and connections that will allow the student to retrieve the lost language and use it again.
A foreign language is central to a liberal education. The foreign language requirement constitutes almost one-fifth of all the credits required for graduation. A foreign language broadens the horizons of the student and allows him or her to read books, magazines, and newspapers in other languages. Depending on the student’s major, a foreign language could become a valuable skill by giving immediate access to specialized scientific or literary journals in other languages. If the student attempts to continue to graduate school, many departments require proficiency in one or more foreign languages. A student who has gone through the College of Liberal Arts program, with its six-course sequence, likely will succeed in those graduate programs.
In a world that is shrinking by immediate communications and increased trade, students able to write and speak a foreign language are valuable assets to business firms and government agencies. In fact, some of our problems in international business and foreign relations may have been not having enough people who speak a foreign language, which may be the result of an institutionalized neglect for the importance of speaking foreign languages.
When American companies send salespeople to Asia, very few speak the language of the countries they may visit. However, when Japanese companies send their salespeople to a foreign country, they make sure they speak the foreign language. It would be unthinkable for a Japanese company to send a salesperson who does not speak Spanish to Latin America. The same is true in foreign relations. Very few American ambassadors speak the language of their host country, except a few in Latin America who speak a little bit of Spanish. This is an ethnocentric attitude of assuming that English is universal and that foreign languages don’t have to be mastered, because a cheap translator can be hired if needed.
Our University has a fantastic program in foreign languages. A student here can learn almost any language he or she wants. The University offers classes on a regular basis, ranging from Sanskrit to sign language to Spanish. In addition, from time to time, it offers other languages, such as Korean, Vietnamese or American Indian languages. We have extremely well-prepared instructors. Some of the teaching assistants are international students who have been attracted to the University’s many successful programs. Our students should continue taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge that these instructors and foreign students bring to the University.
I would even argue that learning a foreign language increases the student’s tolerance for diversity. By being aware of people who are different, students may become more sensitive to issues that have to do with discriminating and downgrading people who are different, like sexism and racism.
Students who learn a foreign language also learn about other cultures, and may want to visit a country where that language is spoken. A visit to a foreign country may be more beneficial to the student’s cognitive and social development than any class we may offer him or her in multicultural education or global pluralism. A student who travels and understands the language being spoken can become aware of how those people think, and about their problems, their aspirations, and their hopes.
Making the student more sensitive to people who are different could be a great accomplishment in itself. On April 14, 1994, just about two years ago, The Minnesota Daily published an article written by a student who was planning to graduate that June.
He obviously had been bothered and irritated by the University’s emphasis on multicultural education and diversity in its student population. He wrote: “If I am never asked to rate an instructor’s respect for diversity; in fact, if I never hear the word diversity again, I will be a happy man.”
This student went through the college curriculum and graduated without learning the necessary skills, attitudes, and behaviors to understand and appreciate the cultures, which combined by the year 2O5O, will constitute more than one-half of his fellow Americans. The fact that some University students, after going through four years of college, still think as they do, tells us how unsuccessful we have been in educating our students in multicultural interactions.
CLA’s foreign language requirement is OK as it is. It is unlikely that it can be increased, given the expanded scope of everything that a student has to learn to become knowledgeable in any field. On the other hand, reducing the requirement will take away one of the greatest strengths of a liberal arts education. Let’s not do that.
Jose G. Gomez is a doctoral candidate for Educational Policy and Administration.