College Students Want to Kill Foreign Language Requirements

Universities should tell them nein.

College class
Even the minutest discussion of vocabulary can open your eyes to new and different ways of seeing the world.


In “The One Semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song,” a 2007 YouTube gem, a guy named Mike woos a nonplussed paramour with such pillow talk as Me gusta la biblioteca and Vivo en la casa roja, illustrating the stark divide between the Spanish he learned in one semester of college (“I like the library”; “I live in the red house”) and the Spanish he’d actually like to know (presumably something about butts).

Mike’s got it easy compared with Keith, though, who attempts to transpose those lyrics for the “First Semester of German German Love Song”—until “I live in the red house” obliterates him.

In German, you see, to convey the act of living in a house (as opposed to going to that house), you have to deploy some second-semester German: the dative case, the fourth of five ways in which the dulcet vernacular of Nietzsche and Wagner signifies location, possession, action, and relationships by declining the ends of nouns, adjectives, and articles—with different endings, of course, if you use the definite versus the indefinite article, and, yes, I am aware you probably just died reading this.

You, like Mike and Keith, probably do not enjoy excurses on the intricacies of adjective declension—and you, like Mike, Keith, and the millions of other undergraduates who write, read, or agree with the countless diatribes on the internet decrying many colleges’ two- or three-semester foreign language requirements, probably wonder was zum Teufel their use is. (This irate Yale freshman, in an op-ed imploring his administration to “kill” its language requirement, asks: “Of all the successful people you know, how many of them speak … any foreign language regularly?” Uh …)

If English is the lingua franca of the world (a Latin phrase, but who cares, right?), then what’s the use of learning any of the other ones? YOUR IN AMERICA, after all. And last I checked, college was for vocational training and racist Halloween parties, not pretending to be a fern’er. If I had wanted to learn grammar all day, students fume in the past subjunctive, I would have been a linguistics major.

Still, some institutions don’t seem to have gotten the English-only memo yet. Princeton, for one, wants to double down, requiring all students to study, not just know, a foreign language—i.e., they can’t test out of the requirement with prior proficiency. But this is in stark contrast to the nationwide trend toward shrinking the foreign language requirement or doing away with it altogether (irate Yale freshmen, rejoice). According to the Modern Language Association, in 2009, more than half of baccalaureate-granting institutions in the United States required courses in a language other than English for graduation. This might seem like a lot, but it signified a veritable plummet, down from almost 68 percent in 1995 (also known as the year I aced German 101; take that, dative). This is a real shame. Not just because American monolingualism is on its face a shame (though it is), but because college foreign language instruction has become far more dynamic and interesting—and, yes, useful—in recent years.

In fact, I would go so far as to say the college foreign language requirement is now a matter of great national urgency. For as the dark, rancid muck of Trumpian nativism begins to rain down upon the United States like the foul slush in Dante’s Third Circle, Spanish 101 might just save us all. For, to appropriate the words of the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, in the fight against totalitarianism (and, for that matter, world war), the greatest weapon is not a weapon at all, but the “soft diplomacy” of mutual understanding between cultures. In other words, it’s harder to see all Mexicans as rapists if you get a legitimate window into actual Mexican culture; it’s harder to believe all American Muslims were in on the San Bernardino, California, shooting if you, you know, talk to a few. Alas, since the Trump administration could well subject Fulbright’s namesake program to his many promised cuts to government, today’s soft diplomats are the beleaguered instructors of Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic 101. ¡Ayudame! Hilfen Sie mir, bitte. Aidez-moi! 助けて!帮帮我!مساعدتي!

But how can they help if students run from their courses screaming? To get some perspective, I emailed with Hiram Maxim, a German professor at Emory University and the author of numerous books and articles on foreign-language pedagogy. Language learning, Maxim explains, is a long-term process, so students often wonder if achieving the mythical “fluency” they idealize is worth the investment. Then, of course, there’s also the prevailing belief that everyone speaks English anyway, one Maxim says is “often perpetuated by some in industry or government or even college administrations.” (Although that, as this recent BBC study shows, often works to native speakers’ disadvantage, making them the “world’s worst communicators.” SAD!)  Finally, Maxim tells me, there’s the notion many undergrads have that “language learning is a tedious process involving fill-in-the blank exercises and verb conjugations,” e.g. Mike’s and Keith’s love songs.

However, Maxim is part of a shift in language teaching, away from thinking of a foreign language as an acquired skill that students can (and should) master and to the idea of multiple cultural literacies, a more fluid notion of uneven bilingualism that can take effect even after a short period of study. “Foreign language pedagogy really has come a long way since the days of memorizing dialogues or translating passages into English,” says Maxim. Instead of the “end points of instruction,” blocks such as grammar and vocabulary are “resources for meaningful communication,” which students learn to use in a variety of contexts. For example, Maxim asks his beginning German students to politely decline an invitation for an activity they don’t want to do—to their roommate, then an elder, then a parent, “working with the language to see how [it] shifts” in each case. That way, students haven’t simply memorized a pat set of dialogue they will probably never use. Instead, they learn to connect language with meaning and with a wider range of their own emotions—the dearth of which, in their own beginning courses, is precisely what Mike and Keith lament in their respective videos.

If you’re still skeptical about how learning to tell your great-great-aunt that you don’t want to go foraging for truffles can stave off four to eight years of gold-plated demagoguery, Maxim points out that even the minutest discussion of vocabulary can “open your eyes to new and different ways of seeing the world,” which, what do you know, is the proven antidote to the Anglo-jingoist flesh-eating virus that threatens to devour us all.

Maxim explains, for example, that American students are fascinated to learn two different words for “student” in German, one for K-12 and another for the university. So, “what at first seems like a minor lexical issue reveals a great deal about the status of universities in the German-speaking world and their distinction from secondary schools.”

Granted, many classrooms—and even some popular autodidactic programs and apps, such as Rosetta Stone or Duolingo—are still at least partway stuck in the pedagogical dark ages of the “grammar-translation” or “audiolingual” methods (remember drills? ¿Cómo se dice “ugh”?). Still, rather than try to get out of a foreign language requirement (or kill it altogether), prospective students should instead ask about the methods of instruction where they’re applying. If, for example, a university’s Spanish, Chinese, French, or Arabic program uses a textbook older than the students it teaches, crammed with grammar charts and vocab lists, stay away. If the first-year course uses a recent book that boasts many bilingual sections on culture—or even no book at all—then that’s a good sign. (Bonus: “I’m interested in the multiliteracies approach to L2 learning; what do you use?” is platinum college-interview material; you’re welcome.)

American students shouldn’t have to attend Princeton to have access to some of the easiest international apocalypse prevention training available. Heed not the dire warnings of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, young people, but rather those of Mike and Keith. Nobody needs a big, beautiful wall between himself and the foreign language requirement. Indeed, the multiple-literacies approach is even likely to provide a few useful pickup lines—far better than I have two bicycles.