Foreign language requirements archaic

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Shane Wade
Opinion Editor 

I’ve been a VCU student for about four years now. I understand the university fairly well. I get why funds are allocated the way they are. I know why we don’t have free GRTC bus passes anymore. I understand why the block portions of our meal plan can’t be readily used whenever we want. As much as students would like to believe they’re being cheated, I know firsthand that the administration strives to prioritize the academic, financial and social needs of the student body.

I don’t, however, understand the necessity for the archaic foreign language requirement still attached to some majors, in particular the English major, which requires its students to take a language until the intermediate 202 level.

Should we still be forcefully encouraging students to expand their academic horizons by requiring them to take classes that are mostly inapplicable to their major or chosen paths? I’m not going to become a translator, work for a foreign affairs agency or be involved in the global trade market. I’m an English major and would prefer to spend my time and money taking courses that I find valuable.

In 2014, in the age of instant translators and with a market well-saturated with language-learning softwares, I shouldn’t be forced to take four semesters worth of a skill that will never be particularly beneficial to my career or my personal growth. At best, after two years of getting to the intermediate stage of a language, for a good portion of students, it is a functioning parlor trick, akin to knowing how to play “Wonderwall” on guitar.

That’s not to say learning a second language is unnecessary or that foreign language majors are wasting their time. Students who want to study French, Spanish or any other language offered at VCU because they are interested in the subject should be encouraged to do so and provided every opportunity to succeed in that respect. There’s an abundance of research to tout the neurological benefits of learning a new language and, if you achieve fluency, it adds another advantage to your resume.

But it’s not equally beneficial for all students.

To quantify the economic return of investment for students that spend time in college studying a foreign language, Albert Saiz, an MIT economist, tracked the progress of about 9,000 college graduates to gauge how their foreign language experience affected their post-college salary. He found that, controlling for other variables, there was only a 2 percent difference in wages, with students with a second language earning about 2 percent more than their counterparts.

There is certainly a worth in wielding a second language in the labor market. Employers find it more appealing and weigh it against competitors for the same job. But acquiring a second language doesn’t always exceed the investment put into learning the language, not to mention the lost opportunity cost of investing that energy, rather than in other course work.

Furthermore, the time and effort we put into learning a language isn’t always authentic. If we aren’t constantly practicing the language, we’ll lose it. That makes a great difference, whether it’s a three-month span between leaving college and entering the job market or years after exiting college. Treating language acquisition as though it’s on par with math skills or the native language literacy gained in childhood isn’t working within a real framework. The rote memorization we sometimes employ to succeed in a language class we’re not passionately invested in may get us a passing grade, but it costs us in the future: Knowing a second language will be a skill we can put down on our resume, but not necessarily a skill we have.

I would rather students become more articulate and capable in their own language before undertaking another. I’ve never taken a language class where the professor has not had to reiterate to native English speakers what an article or preposition is. Students who are articulate and comfortable expressing themselves, both orally and in writing, are more valuable employees than a half-literate business major that can speak Spanish fairly well provided the conversation isn’t too fast and they’re not using slang.

With the multitude of resources available to us, both in terms of free language softwares, a series of instant-translation apps available on smartphones and study abroad programs, there are ways to develop linguistic knowledge and comprehension that don’t involve sitting in a classroom and waging a battle where students simply regurgitate information onto paper for four semesters just to pass a class. Let’s do away with foreign-language requirements and give students more autonomy in constructing their path to graduation.

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