The study of a foreign language is desirable, but not essential

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By Jenna A. Robinson

University students of yesteryear read the classics. Aristotle, Euclid, Homer and Plato were part of the regular curriculum. And students read these difficult texts in their native language, Greek or Latin. The Latin they learned to read the classics had many side benefits. Half of our English vocabulary comes from Latin words and roots. Science, technology, medicine, theology, philosophy and law make extensive use of Latin.

To its detriment, the modern university has largely abandoned this model. Only a few classic books are still required as part of the general education curriculum of most universities. And nowadays, there are many excellent English translations to choose from. Nobody cares about Latin, even less about Greek.

Instead, there is a generic foreign language requirement: a sad holdover from that old system. Students usually have to take (or test) three semesters of the foreign language of their choice. And no one cares whether it’s completely disconnected from the rest of the general education program or the student’s chosen major. Why bother?

Conventional wisdom claims that there are great benefits to learning a foreign language. It can help with memory as well as understanding English grammar and vocabulary. This can improve students’ ability to multi-task. And it can improve student performance in other subjects.

But it’s unclear if these benefits are truly lasting. A recent meta-analysis of bilingual education, published in Psychological Bulletin, concluded that “the available evidence does not consistently support the widely held notion that bilingualism is associated with advantages in cognitive control functions in adults” .

But while there are great benefits of bilingualism or the lifelong study of Latin that was once common, they have little to do with current campus practice.

The current three-semester requirement is not a serious effort to encourage bilingualism. The first three lessons in any foreign language are necessarily very basic. Students will work on basic vocabulary, regular verbs and simple sentences. Almost everything will be in the present. And that’s only if students are studying a language that uses the Latin alphabet. Three semesters of Mandarin Chinese, or any other language with a foreign alphabet, barely scratches the surface.

And in a world of Google Translate and Duolingo, the practical benefits of learning some conversational French or Spanish in college aren’t what they used to be.

Anyone who wants to learn basic expressions and phrases for traveling on the continent can easily do so in a few weeks on the Internet.

Given this low return on foreign language courses, it makes more sense to devote the three semesters now occupied by the foreign language to other subjects.

The list of candidates is long.

Many students enter college terribly ignorant. They haven’t read the Great Books. They neither recognize nor understand the American system of government. They don’t know the scientific method. They don’t have the habits of mind that engender lifelong learning. And employers report that recent university graduates often lack oral and written communication skills – in English!

Any courses that would contribute to a common, foundational level of cultural literacy would be of more value than third semester German. And courses that add to professional skills – such as statistics, logic or public speaking – would help students far more than most foreign languages.

The aim of general education requirements should be to create a broad base of knowledge and understanding that familiarizes students with “the best that has been written and said” and prepares them for further study. Although desirable, the skills imparted in foreign language courses are not essential for understanding what makes us all human, for freeing the mind, or for making sense of the world. They are also not good preparation, in most cases, for student majors.

Universities need to prioritize which courses students should take – and foreign languages ​​don’t make a difference.

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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