Multilingualism at the University

Ask a 1,000-level language student why they’re there and you get: “The CLA language requirement.”

As a student of linguistics, I am constantly reminded that all languages are created equal. Each language is composed of certain sounds, which provide for the formation of words, and then facilitate the transmission of novel ideas from brain to brain. Every known human language on Earth operates this way, and each is equally and uniquely useful to its speakers.

All of this seems reasonable enough to me – common sense, even – which is why I’m continually stunned by the lack of tolerance for second languages on campus, by what appears to be a majority of students.

Ask any student in any 1,000-level language course why he or she is there and you’ll get the ubiquitous response: “The (College of Liberal Arts) language requirement.” When further probed, most students admit it’s their most-hated class, they can’t wait to have it over and done with, and they will inevitably cease to utilize their newfound linguistic skills, or lack thereof.

This attitude is evident in the stifled practice conversations in the studied language, and the fact that, until recently, professors were inundated with whiny CLA students decrying the

Graduation Proficiency Test, the all-too-easy-for-a-fourth-semester-language-student test, which the University regrettably left on the chopping-block last year.

Again, none of this is particularly unfathomable for me, nor do I find myself entirely unsympathetic. I, after all, felt much the same about organic chemistry and calculus two. However, I cannot bear to witness the militaristic monolingualism of the U.S. surface within an institution of purportedly higher learning. Not only are students today wholly apathetic about bilingualism, but they are further diluted by the “prestigism” of a culture which parades around people of color declaring its “diversity,” while making few, futile efforts to establish a meaningful dialogue among peoples of differing cultures (and thus of different linguistic communities).

Even within the small community of aspiring linguists on campus, I manage to encounter a few individuals who are contemptuous of second-language English speakers, who they evidently feel, are not up to par on their English communication skills.

Even more appalling are the bigoted conservatives who declare things such as Latinos need to stop “speaking Mexican” and start “speaking American,” or that everyone here should speak “our language.” Just what exactly is our language? If you happen to check any recent almanac, I can assure you there is, in fact, no official language of the United States. I have even heard students suggest that some Native American languages were not “officially” full-fledged languages.

Ethnocentrism never bordered so closely on racism. It all makes me wonder, “Who took the ‘liberal’ out of liberal arts?”

Don’t get me wrong, learning another language is difficult, if not at times grueling, and it is completely reasonable that many find the challenge disconcerting. But let’s turn that logic around for a moment: The task is equally daunting for those entering the United States to work, study and live. That is the viewpoint few seem willing to consider, and many students fail to realize their efforts will pay huge dividends later in life.

Despite all of its difficulties, I have come to love speaking other languages and savor the tones of foreign tongues not yet realized. I relish in my ability to communicate ideas in Spanish and French that just seem inadequate in English, and vice versa, recognizing the particular qualities of all. Thankfully, I feel the University is doing a decent job to propel the notion that diversity lies in more than just people that look different but who speak and think differently as well. I just hope the student body follows with more open mouths and fewer closed minds.

Sean Corcoran is a guest columnist and welcomes comments at [email protected]